Benzalkonium chloride as disinfectant

Benzalkonium chloride as disinfectant DEFAULT

Cleaning tips from a chemist who researches disinfectants

Many household cleaners, once ubiquitous and taken for granted, are flying off store shelves faster than they are restocked, as people strive to keep surfaces free of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a survey on consumer knowledge and practices for disinfecting coronavirus and found that 39 percent of the respondents had misused cleaning products.

“This pandemic has caused me to think more about the knowledge of cleaning protocols of the everyday person,” says Bill Wuest, an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who studies disinfectants. “It’s important to communicate our research to the general public to generate clear messages.”

An active ingredient commonly seen in household cleaners, including some disinfectant sprays and liquids, and anti-bacterial sanitizing wipes and soaps, are quaternary ammonium compounds, or QACs.

One of the first QACs to enter the marketplace as a cleaning agent was benzalkonium chloride. Known as BAC for short, it was introduced in Lysol around the beginning of the 20th century, became widely adopted by the manufacturers of a range of cleaning products, and has remained a staple ever since.

In fact, if you read the labels of the cleaning supplies in your household, you will likely see benzalkonium chloride listed among the active ingredients on at least one of them, if not more. “There are basically four or five QACs, including BAC, that have been the workhouse disinfectants for around 100 years, on the frontline of most homes and hospitals,” Wuest says. “Very little has been done to change them around, because they work so well against many common bacteria, viruses, molds and fungi and they’re so simple and cheap to make.”

QACs are surfactants, or surface-acting agents, he explains. Their molecules have an ammonia atom at the center of two methyl stubs and two long carbon chains. In the simplest terms, the positively charged heads of the carbon chains are drawn to the negatively charged fatty membranes encasing many bacteria and viruses, including coronaviruses. The heads of the carbon chains act like spearpoints, breaking apart the fatty membranes and causing the pathogens to disintegrate.

The Wuest lab is a leader in studies of QACs. One issue Wuest and his colleagues have identified is the fact that a few bacteria strains are slowly developing some resistance to BAC. If that trend continues, it could cause serious problems years down the road for sanitation in hospitals. In the U.S. alone, at least 2.8 million people get antibiotic-resistant infections, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, leading to more than 35,000 deaths.

Research has frequently confirmed that QACs work against influenza viruses as well as bacterial strains and coronaviruses that have similar outer membranes as SARS-CoV-2.

Wuest offers the following tips for consumers.

Avoid “antibacterial” sanitizers and soaps 

BAC is the active ingredient in most “antibacterial” wipes, hand sanitizers and soaps. Wuest recommends choosing plain soap or plain alcohol-based sanitizers whenever possible, to avoid potentially contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. While products containing BAC are convenient and practical, especially for cleaning large surfaces, plain soap and water also work well against coronaviruses and other common pathogens.

Follow instructions closely 

“I doubt that many people read the directions carefully on the cleaning products they use, but it’s important to do so,” Wuest says. He notes that some products state that, after application, the cleaning agent needs to stay on the surface being sanitized for several minutes before being wiped off.

Never mix cleaning agents 

Consumers should never try to mix cleaning agents to try to “improve” them, Wuest stresses. Bleach combined with ammonia, for example, generates toxic chloramine vapor, which will cause chemical burns to the eyes and lungs and can permanently damage the respiratory system. Even mixing bleach with the seemingly innocuous ingredient of household vinegar is dangerous, as that combination creates deadly chlorine gas.

“Never mix any cleaning product with another cleaning product,” he says. “It’s an extremely dangerous thing to do, as many of the ingredients are hazardous if not used as directed.”

Check latest CDC recommendations

For more guidance on cleaning in the era of COVID-19, Wuest points to a web page, Cleaning and Disinfection for Households, outlining current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Protecting Yourself from COVID-19 (coronavirus) without Toxic Sanitizers and Disinfectants

Fight the coronavirus with common sense prevention and safer disinfection products. Avoid products that increase vulnerability to respiratory problems. Download the PDF of this factsheet, here.  Jump to Q&A.


The New York Times reports an increase in calls to poison control centers regarding illnesses resulting from use or misuse of toxic disinfectants during the pandemic.[1]Disinfectants are designed to be used on hard surfaces, while sanitizers are made to be used on skin. FDA warns that disinfectant sprays or wipes should not be used on skin because they may cause skin and eye irritation.[2]

Furthermore, we have learned through the COVID-19 crisis that there are people who are more vulnerable to the effects of the virus. These are generally people who have a pre-existing condition or are of advanced age, who may have a weakened immune or respiratory system. With the management of viral and bacterial infections, it is always important that we do not exacerbate the risk to individuals in the process of avoiding or controlling the threat. Many of the products approved as sanitizers and disinfectants have negative impacts on the respiratory or immune system, thus reducing resistance to the disease.

In the case of COVID-19, we have measures of protection—both practices and products—that can protect us without using toxic products that increase risk factors.


The good news is that toxic chemicals are not necessary to prevent exposure to COVID-19 and eliminate the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges simple measures to prevent exposure:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Stay home.
  • Practice social distancing: stay at least six feet from other people.
  • Wear a mask in public.

How it works: The best way to prevent any infectious disease transmission is to stay out of contact with those who have already contracted the disease.

Eliminating the Virus on Hands

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol. (See list of products below.) Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

How it works: Soap breaks down the virus’s fat membrane—and the infectious material falls apart—as long as you rub the soap on your hands for at least 20 seconds. Alcohol sanitizers with 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol do the same thing. These chemicals break down the virus by a similar process, by breaking down the lipid covering of the virus.[3]

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates hand sanitizers. Only products with active ingredients ethanol, isopropanol, or benzalkonium chloride can qualify as "hand sanitizers" according to FDA. However, CDC says evidence shows that benzalkonium chloride is less reliably effective against the coronavirus than alcohol.[4] An alcohol-based hand sanitizer should contain at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol in order to be effective.[5]

The Good: Soap or Alcohol
The most effective way to remove the coronavirus from your hands is to wash with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds.

If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol. Glycerol or aloe as part of the remainder can help counter the drying effects of alcohol on the skin. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty. If they are not cleaned first, the success of the sanitizer can be compromised. If hands are visibly dirty and soap and water washing is not possible, rub hands to remove as much dirt as possible.

The Bad: Toxic Sanitizers
Avoid hand sanitizers containing benzalkonium chloride (BAC), which is a quaternary ammonium compound (or “quat”). It is an irritant that can cause asthmatic reactions and adversely affect the respiratory system.[6],[7] BAC is also associated with changes in neurodevelopment,[8]selection for antibiotic resistance,[9] and provoking irritant and/or contact dermatitis.[10] In addition, CDC reports that BAC is less reliable than the alcohols.[11] 

Eliminating the Virus on Surfaces

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using regular household cleaning sprays and safer disinfectants. (See list of products below.) Disinfectants are ineffective if used on dirty surfaces because their disinfectant power is wasted attacking dirt.[12]Ordinary soap, detergent, and water can be used for cleaning                   

How it works: Like handwashing with soap or wipes with 60% alcohol, the virus on surfaces can be detached and broken down with soap and alcohol.[13]

The Better-Good: Natural-based substances tend to be safer, while still effective at eliminating the virus on surfaces. Look for products with the following active ingredients (* indicates listed by EPA’s Design for the Environment Program (DfE) or Safer Choice Program[14]). This category is subdivided because active ingredients are found in products with other, or “inert,” ingredients, which regularly make up the majority of a product’s formulation, may be toxic, and not disclosed on the product label. Because DfE is a voluntary program, its list is limited to manufacturers that choose to participate with individual product reviews.

Better. Below, the full formulation of product ingredients, including “inerts,” has been evaluated and listed by DfE/Safer Choice, but “inerts” are not disclosed to the public:

Good. While the active ingredients with an asterisk below are DfE listed, the “inert” ingredients in most products containing these active ingredients have not received the DfE/Safer Choice listing (except those in the better category):

  • Citric acid*
  • Ethanol*
  • Isopropanol*
  • L-lactic acid*
  • Hydrogen peroxide*
  • Sodium bisulfate*
  • Thymol
  • Dodecylbenzenesulfonic acid*[15]

The Bad: EPA has approved a long list of products[16] that will eliminate the Covid-19 virus on surfaces. The list includes products containing toxic chemicals, such as chlorine bleach, peroxyacetic acid, quaternary ammonium compounds or “quats,” sodium dichloro-s-triazinetrione, and hydrochloric acid. Exposure to these chemicals are associated with a long list of adverse effects, from asthma to cancer.[17],[18] Avoid products containing:

  • Peroxyacetic acid (peracetic acid)[19]
  • Chlorine compounds (sodium hypochlorite, hypochlorous acid, sodium chlorite, sodium chloride[20])
  • Sodium Dichloro-S-Triazinetrione
  • Quaternary Ammonium compounds (quats)
  • Iodine[21]
  • Phenolic compounds
  • Glycolic acid
  • Octanoic acid[22]
  • Potassium peroxymonosulfate[23]
  • Ammonium carbonate[24]
  • Ammonium bicarbonate[18]
  • Silver[25]
  • Glutaraldehyde[26]

All of these ingredients are associated with harm to the respiratory system.[27],[28],[29],[30],[31],[32] In addition, some quats have been shown to cause mutations, lower fertility, and increase antibiotic resistance.[33] Phenolic compounds include a wide range of toxic chemicals, including cresols, hexachlorobenzene, and chlorophenols. Health effects from breathing or exposure to the skin include headaches, burning eyes, muscle tremors, skin burns, irregular heartbeat, severe injury to heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs, cancer, and death.[34],[35]


It is important during public health emergencies involving infectious diseases to scrutinize practices and products very carefully so that hazards presented by the crisis are not elevated because of the unnecessary threat introduced with toxic chemical use.

Updated 07/02/2020.


[1] New York Times, April 22, 2020. As Coronavirus Spreads, Poison Hotlines See Rise in Accidents With Cleaning Products,


[3] Pall Thordarson, 2020. The science of soap – here’s how it kills the coronavirus. See also:


[5] CDC Statement for Healthcare Personnel on Hand Hygiene during the Response to the International Emergence of COVID-19.


[7] Choi, H.Y., Lee, Y.H., Lim, C.H., Kim, Y.S., Lee, I.S., Jo, J.M., Lee, H.Y., Cha, H.G., Woo, H.J. and Seo, D.S., 2020. Assessment of respiratory and systemic toxicity of Benzalkonium chloride following a 14-day inhalation study in rats. Particle and Fibre Toxicology, 17(1), p.5.

[8] Herron, J.M., 2019. The Effects of Benzalkonium Chloride Disinfectants on Lipid Homeostasis and Neurodevelopment (Doctoral dissertation).

[9] Kim, M., Weigand, M.R., Oh, S., Hatt, J.K., Krishnan, R., Tezel, U., Pavlostathis, S.G. and Konstantinidis, K.T., 2018. Widely used benzalkonium chloride disinfectants can promote antibiotic resistance. Applied and environmental microbiology, 84(17), pp.e01201-18.

[10] Lachenmeier, D.W., 2016. Antiseptic Drugs and Disinfectants. In Side Effects of Drugs Annual (Vol. 38, pp. 211-216). Elsevier.



[13] Kampf, G., Todt, D., Pfaender, S. and Steinmann, E., 2020. Persistence of coronaviruses on inanimate surfaces and its inactivation with biocidal agents. Journal of Hospital Infection.

[14] Disinfectants are pesticides and are covered by DfE; other materials, such as surfactants are covered by SCP.

[15] Inhalation risk is low because dodecylbenzenesulfonic acid is applied using large, non-respirable droplet sizes in order to be effective. (European Chemicals Agency dossier.) Dodecylbenzenesulfonic acid is a safer surfactant according to the SCP.

[16] Unlike other pesticides, EPA must verify the efficacy of disinfectants. EPA says that these have been shown to be effective against SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, by demonstrated efficacy against a harder-to-kill virus or demonstrated efficacy against another type of human coronavirus similar to SARS-CoV-2.


[18] Agency on Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2008. ToxFAQs for Chlorophenol. 

[19] Peracetic acid is on EPA’s DfE list, but is considered to pose an asthma risk.

[20] Sodium chloride as listed by EPA is actually hypochlorous acid

[21] ZZZ Disinfectant SDS; ZZZ Disinfectant Label

[22] Octanoic acid is listed on EPA’s Safer Chemical Ingredients List under surfactants, which are listed based on environmental toxicity and biodegradation. But it is corrosive to skin

[23] SDS: Potassium peroxymonosulfate, Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Inc.

[24] Actually Didecyldimethyl ammonium carbonate, a quaternary ammonium compound. Label:, Didecyl Dimethyl Ammonium Carbonate and Didecyl Dimethyl Ammonium Bicarbonate; Exemption From the Requirement of a Tolerance

[25] Spray products. Nowack, B., Krug, H.F. and Height, M., 2011. 120 years of nanosilver history: implications for policy makers.; Seiffert, J., Buckley, A., Leo, B., Martin, N.G., Zhu, J., Dai, R., Hussain, F., Guo, C., Warren, J., Hodgson, A. and Gong, J., 2016. Pulmonary effects of inhalation of spark-generated silver nanoparticles in Brown-Norway and Sprague–Dawley rats. Respiratory research, 17(1), p.85.

[26] Occupational Health Branch of the California Department of Public Health, 2017. Disinfectants and Work-Related Asthma: Information for Workers.


[28] Holm, S.M., Leonard, V., Durrani, T. and Miller, M.D., 2019. Do we know how best to disinfect child care sites in the United States? A review of available disinfectant efficacy data and health risks of the major disinfectant classes. American journal of infection control, 47(1), pp.82-91.

[29] Agency on Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2008. ToxFAQs for Phenol.

[30] Weiselberg, R. and Nelson, L.S., 2011. A Toxic Swimming Pool Hazard. EMERGENCY MEDICINE.

[31] Glycolic acid MSDS.

[32] European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), Octanoic Acid Registration Dossier.

[33] Holm, S.M., Leonard, V., Durrani, T. and Miller, M.D., 2019. Do we know how best to disinfect child care sites in the United States? A review of available disinfectant efficacy data and health risks of the major disinfectant classes. American journal of infection control, 47(1), pp.82-91.

[34] Agency on Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2008. ToxFAQs for Phenol.

[35] Agency on Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2008. ToxFAQs for Chlorophenol.


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Long-Term Exposure to Benzalkonium Chloride Disinfectants Results in Change of Microbial Community Structure and Increased Antimicrobial Resistance

Abstract Image

The effect of benzalkonium chlorides (BACs), a widely used class of quaternary ammonium disinfectants, on microbial community structure and antimicrobial resistance was investigated using three aerobic microbial communities: BACs-unexposed (DP, fed a mixture of dextrin/peptone), BACs-exposed (DPB, fed a mixture of dextrin/peptone and BACs), and BACs-enriched (B, fed only BACs). Long-term exposure to BACs reduced community diversity and resulted in the enrichment of BAC-resistant species, predominantly Pseudomonas species. Exposure of the two microbial communities to BACs significantly decreased their susceptibility to BACs as well as three clinically relevant antibiotics (penicillin G, tetracycline, ciprofloxacin). Increased resistance to BACs and penicillin G of the two BACs-exposed communities is predominantly attributed to degradation or transformation of these compounds, whereas resistance to tetracycline and ciprofloxacin is largely due to the activity of efflux pumps. Quantification of several key multidrug resistance genes showed a much higher number of copies of these genes in the DPB and B microbial communities compared to the DP community. Collectively, our findings indicate that exposure of a microbial community to BACs results in increased antibiotic resistance, which has important implications for both human and environmental health.


Quaternary ammonium compounds (Quats) are membrane-active agents well known for their efficacy against bacteria, fungi, algae, and enveloped viruses. A popular example is Benzalkonium Chloride (BKC), an antiseptic ingredient often formulated in topical, ophthalmic, nasal and oral preparations.

By deactivating viruses through the disruption of lipid membranes, BKC is effective against a long list of enveloped viruses, including enteroviruses, rotaviruses, norovirus, influenza virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), rhinovirus, chlamydia, herpes simplex and hepatitis A.

As the need for effective yet safe antiviral products intensifies amid the Covid-19 pandemic, what is BKC’s virucidal effect when it comes to coronaviruses?

How does Benzalkonium Chloride (BKC) deactivate viruses?

In the mode of action, the cationic ‘headgroup’ of BKC is progressively adsorbed to the negatively charged phosphate heads of phospholipids in the lipid bilayer and subsequently increases in concentration. The consistent increase of BKC concentration results in reduced membrane fluidity, creating hydrophilic gaps in the membrane.

In addition, the alkyl chain ‘tail’ component of BKC further perturbs the membrane bilayer by permeating the barrier and disrupting its physical and biochemical properties. Protein function is subsequently disturbed, and the combination of these effects results in the solubilisation of the bilayer constituents into BKC/phospholipid micelles. BKC also interrupts inter-cellular targets and compromises the conformational behaviour of DNA.

BKC and coronaviruses

Multiple studies have reported on the virucidal effect of BKC against coronaviruses. Rabenau et al. found that, as a surface disinfectant in concentration of 0.5%, BKC demonstrated a reduction factor of >4 against SARS-CoV. Meanwhile, by evaluating the virucidal activity of different oral rinses against three strains of SARS-CoV-2, Meister et al. reported log reductions of >3.11, >2.78 and >2.61 for a rinse containing 0.035% BKC.

While Schrank et al. has stated that the cumulated data on BKC-based products against the family of coronaviruses is not uniformly asserted, Quats are indeed reported to be effective against influenza viruses. Due to the similarities between the outer membrane structures of influenza and SARS-CoV-2 viruses with their relatively comparable phospholipid bilayers, Schrank et al. concludes significant ground for the potential efficacy of BKC against SARS-CoV-2.

Quats and BKC in the healthcare sector

Quats-based disinfectants have been recommended by several government agencies for deactivating SARS-CoV-2 virus. Of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s list of 370 suitable disinfectant products for use against SARS-CoV-2, a total 171 (40%) contain Quats ingredients alone, while a further 33 products contain Quats alongside one other class of active ingredient. The US CDC also asserted Quats to be a proven disinfectant, meanwhile Benzalkonium Chloride remains on the FDA’s list of approved hand sanitiser active ingredients.

In times like these, disinfection has never been more important in healthcare settings, where alcohol-based hand sanitisers (ABHS) predominate due to their low cost. However, the flammable compounds in ABHS offer just momentary disinfection, with frequent use often harsh and drying on the skin. Longer lasting effects are provided by less volatile active compounds such as Quats, which are also kinder to skin.

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Chloride disinfectant benzalkonium as

Benzalkonium Chlorides: Uses, Regulatory Status, and Microbial Resistance

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Toxic Tuesday - Benzalkonium Chloride

Benzalkonium Chloride Solutions

Manufactured at Quat-Chem UK to your specifications

  • BC50: 50% Benzalkonium Chloride Solutions
  • BC50: Low foam
  • BC80: 80% Benzalkonium Chloride Solutions
  • BC80: Low foam
  • BAC70 WLF: Winterised, low foam oilfield biocide

Benzalkonium Chloride Solutions can be tailored to your specific industrial requirements.

Please CONTACT US for variations on concentration, solvents and other additives.


Benzalkonium chloride is a member of the quaternary ammonium class of biocides, recognised for its dual biocidal and detergency properties. Its biocidal efficacy depends on its capacity to act as a cationic surfactant in binding to and disrupting cellular and intracellular membranes, and associated biochemical processes. Functions such as cell adhesion, cell signaling, selective permeability to ions and nutritional organic molecules ensure cellular survival through its ability to interact with and respond effectively to environmental stimuli. Disruption of these processes ensures a high level of activity against bacteria, algae, fungi and enveloped viruses at exceptionally low concentrations. BC50 passes stringent BS EN 1276 microbicidal testing (high organic contamination, hard water conditions) at a dilution of 1:1250, giving a 5-log kill (1:100,000 bacterial survival) against a range of the most problematic organisms.


Benzalkonium chloride is widely used in the formulation of disinfectants and cleaner-sanitisers for the hospital, livestock, food & dairy and personal hygiene sectors.

  • Offers rapid, safe, powerful antimicrobial activity at low ppm
  • Strong detergency ensures ease of removal of organic soil which harbours microbes
  • Ease of formulation for biocidal activity under high organic contamination conditions
  • Compatible with non-ionic, amphoteric and cationic surface-active agents
  • Displays synergistic activity with other classes of biocide & excipients
  • Retains activity in highly acid to highly alkaline formulations
  • High molecular stability with retention of activity at extremes of temperature
  • Lends itself well to formulation optimisation for hard water conditions
  • Retains biocidal activity in aqueous and organic solvents
  • Benzalkonium chloride disinfectants are non-toxic, non-tainting & odour-free at typical use dilutions

For Quat-Chem disinfection products based on quaternary ammonium compounds, please click here.


For industrial applications of benzalkonium chloride, please click here.


Quaternary ammonium compounds display a high level of biodegradability when tested in accordance with OECD test protocol 301C. It is not known to accumulate in the natural environment under normal use conditions. Like all detergents, ADBAC is highly toxic to marine organisms under laboratory conditions, but does not bio-accumulate in organisms. In the natural environment it is readily deactivated by clays and humic substances which neutralises its aquatic toxicity and prevent its migration across environmental compartments.

Synonyms: Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride, ADBAC, BC50, BAC 50, BKC 50, BC80, BAC 80, BKC 80


Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (CAS no. 68424-85-1) has been pre-registered under REACH regulation and notified under the Biocidal Product Directive 98/8/EC (ref: N501).


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