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News: Your Disinfectant Wipes Could Be Making You Fat, Foggy and Tired — MDs Weigh In on The Health Dangers of “Quats”

Many of the most popular cleaners are making women sick — the easy swaps that keep you feeling great

With sick season around the corner, many of us are stocking up on our favorite Chlorox disinfecting wipes or Lysol disinfecting mist or maybe Scrubbing Bubbles bathroom cleaner. Because, of course, we want to keep our families safe and sound when sick season rolls around and so we buy the brand-name products that we know and trust. But it turns out there’s a hidden downside to many of the most popular anti-microbial products: Most contain quaternary ammonium compounds.

Say wh-a-a-a-t? Yes, it’s mouthful, but it’s important to know because quaternary ammonium compounds have been linked in peer-reviewed studies to skin irritation, serious respiratory issues like COPD, damage to the eyes, poor immune function and mitochondrial dysfunction. And mitochondrial dysfunction is linked with a higher risk of developing diabetes, depression, chronic fatigue and weight gain. For those reasons, experts are increasingly advising against using these disinfectants. Read on to learn more about these chemicals, how to check your current cleaning products to see if they contain them and how you can keep your home free of germs without the stuff that saps your health.

What are quaternary ammonium compounds?

Quaternary ammonium compounds, also known as QACs or “quats,” are a type of chemical often used in household surface cleaners, hand sanitizers and other antimicrobial products. “They are found in thousands of products worldwide and get into our bodies everyday through a variety of pathways,” explains rheumatologist Aly Cohen, MD, founder of The Smart Human. Quats invade both through direct skin contact and when we inhale vapors.

While commercially available cleaners typically have a lower concentration of the chemicals, hospitals, offices and schools tend to use industrial-grade quats to ensure sanitation.

“Almost 95,000 synthetic compounds have been added into our lives over the past 75 years,” says Dr. Cohen, an integrative medicine and environmental health expert and author of Non-Toxic: Guide to Living Health in a Chemical World. “That’s a lot for the human body to manage!” (Click through to learn how these chemicals and others can also be harmful to pets, plus how to keep your furry friends safe.)

Quaternary ammonium compounds are everywhere

A new study from the Green Science Policy Institute finds that our use of quats increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Disinfectant wipes containing QACs are often used on children’s school desks, hospital exam tables and in homes, where they remain on these surfaces and in the air,” says study coauthor Courtney Carignan, assistant professor at Michigan State University in a media release. One reason: They make up a majority of the EPA’s List N, a collection of cleaners that kill COVID-19 on surfaces. But coauthor Carol Kwiatkowski, a scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute, explains, “Drastically reducing many uses of QACs won’t spread COVID-19. In fact, it will make our homes, classrooms, offices and other shared spaces healthier.”

The health risks of quats

Suspected and known side effects of quats include skin irritation, respiratory effects, impaired cell function and even more serious outcomes like developmental and reproductive toxicity, explains Jessica Peatross, MD, an internal medicine practitioner and founder of the app WellnessPlus by Dr. Jess MD.

Quats may harm respiratory health

A major concern surrounding quats comes from what happens when you inhale the chemical’s vapors. When inhaled, the chemicals can cause inflammation and irritate airways. According to a report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, this may induce symptoms like coughing, dizziness, shortness of breath, headache and flu-like symptoms. Dr. Peatross notes quats may also lead to bronchoconstriction, or the narrowing of airways, which can more breathing more difficult. Use of quaternary ammonium compounds may also lead to asthma. Plus, in a study in the European Respiratory Journal, people who already had asthma had a harder time controlling their breathing when exposed to QACs.

Regular exposure to quats may also lead to long-term lung damage and conditions like chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD). Research on over 73,000 nurses found that those who cleaned surfaces and equipment with quats had up to a 38% higher risk of developing COPD. (Click through to discover more ways to keep your lungs healthy.)

Quats can irritate skin

When quats come into contact with skin, they can be irritating and corrosive. “QACs can strip the skin of its natural oils, which help keep the skin moisturized and protected,” says Dr. Peatross. “This can result in dryness, flakiness and overall skin discomfort.” Other common symptoms include itching, rash, redness and blistering. Plus, frequent exposure to quats can weaken the skin barrier and cause reactions like dermatitis.  (Experiencing skin symptoms? Click through to learn how oatmeal can help you heal.)

Quats can harm the eyes

Exposure to droplets or aerosols from quats may also irritate the eyes, cause itching, swelling and burning, and in some cases lead to scarring of the eyes. If you get these chemicals in your eyes, you should immediately flush your eyes with warm water for at least 10 minutes and visit your doctor or a hospital.

Quats may cause mitochondrial dysfunction

Quaternary ammonium compounds can enter the bloodstream through inhalation and skin contact. One small study found that 80% of people tested had some level of quats in their blood — an effect that caused higher markers of immune-hampering inflammation.

Plus, study subjects had impaired mitochondrial function. “Mitochondria essentially manage the metabolism of the cell — energy, utilization of sugar, management of fats and nutrients, breakdown of medications,” explains Dr. Cohen. “When a chemical affects our mitochondria, there is the risk and likely outcome of changes to the function of these structures, which can lead to organ dysfunction.”

What does that mean for your health? Says Dr. Peatross, “Mitochondrial dysfunction can manifest as fatigue, brain fog, blood sugar issues/diabetes, neurodegenerative conditions, mood disorders or liver problems.” And all of those disorders can lead to weight gain. (Click through to learn how to overcome mitochondrial dysfunction.)

What’s more, a study done in mice found that exposure to quats impeded the activation of T-cells. These cells are key for destroying harmful pathogens and keeping the immune system humming.  (Click through to our sister website to discover how you can build up your immune system before sick season strikes.)

Quats may cause reproductive issues

Though research in humans is limited, some animal studies have linked exposure to quats to poor reproductive health. Researchers publishing in Environmental Health Perspectives found the chemicals blocked estrogen from binding to receptors in the body. This may inhibit or suppress production of the hormone, which can lead to symptoms like mood swings and hot flashes. And animal research revealed that simply using quats to clean the room mice were in caused birth defects.

How to spot and avoid quats

One of the most common quats is benzalkonium chloride (BAK) and it’s found in detergents, disinfectants and antimicrobial soaps. Experts advise checking ingredient labels for BAK and for names that end with “ammonium chloride,” which is a telltale sign your product has quats. You’ll find them most commonly in disinfecting, antibacterial and antimicrobial products. Some common cleaning products with quats include: Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, Fantastik All Purpose Cleaner, Scrubbing Bubbles Multi-Purpose Disinfectant and Lysol Max Cover Disinfecting Mist.

Most products won’t have a label telling you if they contain quats or not. Use this list from the National Pesticide Information Center to check ingredient lists for different quats, which can show up on labels with scientific names like Didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride and Dialkyl methyl benzyl ammonium chloride.

What to use instead of quaternary ammonium compounds

“It’s impossible to avoid all chemicals, especially in environments where you may have little control, like work and school,” says Dr. Cohen. “But we can control what we bring into our home.” Her recommendations: For basic cleaning, bar soap works great. (Try Dr. Bronner’s Bar Soap, Buy at DrBronner, $4.99, and use with a damp scrub brush or rag.) When it comes to disinfecting, consider 70% isopropyl alcohol.

Dr. Peatross advises opting for products with eco-friendly and non-toxic labels. Or, she adds that you can make your own cleaner with safe ingredients like vinegar, baking soda and lemon juice. (Click through for 9 DIY Recipes for Homemade Cleaning Products and to learn why you should never mix vinegar and bleach.)

No time for DIY? Clorox’s Free & Clear line of disinfectants and surface cleaners is quats-free. Another quats-free favorite: Seventh Generation — their line of products including disinfecting wipes, detergent and ish soaps don’t contain harmful chemicals.

Dr. Peatross is also a fan of woman-owned company Branch Basics, which makes toxin-free plant and mineral-based cleaners. Or consider ECOS, another one of Dr. Peatross’ favorites. Their eco-conscious cleaning products, laundry detergents and soaps are all free of quats and other harmful chemicals.

To find other safe products, check out Healthy Living, an app created by The Environmental Working Group, an organization that monitors potentially health-harming practices.

Click through for more must-read news on safe cleaning products

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6 Ways to Minimize the Toxins in Your Home

Spring Cleaning: Before You Spray Harsh Chemicals, Try These ‘Clean’ Hacks That Save Money

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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