QACs: What are they and how are they affecting you?

Over the past three years, disinfecting products have become an important topic in cleaning. Because of this, it’s become increasingly important to be aware of the chemicals we use to disinfect and the effects they have on us and the environment.

What are QACs?

Quaternary ammonium compounds – also referred to as QACs or quats – are a broad class of man-made chemicals first discovered in the 1940s. These compounds are commonly found in cleaning supplies (both household and industrial) as well as herbicides and even wood preservatives! Although they have been used for over 80 years, they’ve become much more popular as a disinfectant in the wake of COVID19. As usage has increased, so have studies on the effect of QACs.

What effect do they have on people?

QACs can have both acute and chronic effects on people. Acute effects can include irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, or lungs. In more serious cases, long-term exposure to QACs has been linked to chronic respiratory effects such as asthma and skin sensitization or allergic dermatitis.

What effect do they have on the environment?

When QACs end up down the drain and eventually in wastewater treatment plants, some – but not all – are removed before the water is discharged into the environment. Traces have been found in surface waters, soil, sediments, and wastewater sludge. This has led researchers to raise concerns for microorganisms and aquatic organisms, the impact on wastewater plants, and the potential for development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

What alternatives can be used?

There are numerous alternatives to QACs – both chemical and non-chemical – that can be used if you would be more comfortable avoiding them altogether. If you are looking to avoid QACs, look closely at products that have labels including words such as “benzalkonium chlorides,” “antibacterial,”  “antimicrobial,”  and names that end in “ammonium chloride,” Instead, look for ingredients such as these:

  • Caprylic Acid: Also known as octanoic acid, caprylic acid is a natural agent produced by the distillation of coconut or palm kernel oils. Caprylic acid is biodegradable and considered to have low toxicity.
  • Citric Acid: A naturally occurring substance, citric acid can be extracted from pineapple waste and citrus fruits. It is used as an active ingredient in ready to use antimicrobial products but can be corrosive in its concentrated form.
  • Hydrogen Peroxide: Easily accessible and fairly inexpensive, hydrogen peroxide is generally considered a safe alternative when it is the only active ingredient in a product. However, when hydrogen peroxide is mixed with other chemicals – peroxyacetic acid particularly – the mixture may cause asthma and is therefore not considered a safer alternative.
  • L-Lactic Acid: A naturally occurring organic acid, L-Lactic Acid is used as an active ingredient. Concentrated L-Lactic Acid can be corrosive and a severe skin and eye irritant.

How to use QACs safely?

As with many things in life, moderation is key. It’s best to clean with soap and water when able and disinfect only as needed. However, when using QACs or other disinfectants that could irritate your skin, eyes, nose, or throat, using precautions such as gloves, protective goggles, or a properly fitted N95 mask can help reduce risk of irritation. If the product containing QACs is a spray, it is also recommended to use as much ventilation as possible, and either spray or pour the product onto your cleaning cloth.

For further guidance on how to maintain a safe and clean working environment, contact us at

References and Further Reading

Scientists raise concerns about popular COVID disinfectants (