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Bottles of disinfectant wipes.

Cleaning up messes? Flu season? Coughing and sneezing? Grab those disinfectant wipes!

Germs will be gone, right? Yes, but those wipes may contain Environmental Protection Agency-registered pesticides.  Yes that’s right, pesticides.  Some of these products should not be used around children, especially small children.  Many of the ingredients in these products have been linked with health problems, such as asthma and increasing allergies. 

Why do disinfectant products contain these substances?  Manufacturers of disinfectants must prove the active ingredients they use can kill specific bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus (which can cause dangerous blood, lung, bone, and heart valve infections) on surfaces. Any claims on the label about specific viruses must also be substantiated.  Active ingredients include: 

Caution label on disinfectant wipes saying "Keep Out of Reach of Children."
  • Bleach (or sodium hypochlorite)
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds—QACs or “quats” for short. The name on the label will be alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride, and other types of “benzyl ammonium chloride.”  Products containing quats must bear a caution: “Keep out of reach of children.”  The wipes containing quats are of real concern for children as they have been marketed to schools and teachers.

Research with mostly adults have shown possible causes of asthma include bleach and quats.  Consumer Reports spoke to some experts who felt the active ingredients in disinfectant wipes were more concerning for children, because they breathe in more air per pound of body weight than adults.  Thus, their exposure is higher than an adult.   

It’s important to realize there is a difference in cleaning products and disinfectant products.  Cleaning products will clean but don’t disinfect.  Most of the time cleaning is all that is needed.  Soap and water will remove dirt, soil and some germs and are good to use most of the time. Some wipes are just for cleaning, and some are disinfectant wipes.    

When used properly disinfectant wipes and products can be effective in killing germs and controlling infections in certain healthcare settings and in our homes. When you have a mess of vomit or diarrhea then you should use a disinfectant. When using disinfectants keep children away from the area.  Most disinfectants need to be on the surface for several minutes to work.  Check the label and use as directed.   

Check the EPA for a list of cleaning products that are considered to be safer. The EPA screens out products that may be linked to asthma or breathing difficulties. A 2019 article in the American Journal of Infection Control found hydrogen peroxide had less negative health effects. It could be an alternative to consider.     

Author:  Pat Brinkman, Ohio State University Extension, Family and Consumer Sciences Educator

Reviewer: Susan Zies, Ohio State University Extension, Family and Consumer Sciences Educator

References:

Boyle, M. (2015). The Trouble with Disinfecting Wipes, Available at https://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2015/09/trouble-disinfecting-wipes

Environmental Protection Agency, (2020). Safer Choice, Available at https://www.epa.gov/saferchoice/products

Roberts, C. (2020). Consumer Reports: Why Parents Should Be Cautious When Using Household Disinfectants Disinfecting wipes can help eliminate some germs, but they also contain EPA-registered pesticides  Available at https://www.consumerreports.org/cleaning/when-using-household-disinfectants-parents-should-be-cautious/?EXTKEY=YSOCIAL_FB

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