Chemicals explained: QUATS

lab, research, chemistry

What are QUATS?

QUATS – also known as quaternary ammonium compounds- are a series of ammonium salts. They are most commonly used as sanitisers and disinfectants and have no odour. 

Overall, QUATS have a positive charge – this makes it incredibly efficient at adhering to and ‘picking up’ negatively charged bacteria, viruses and other microbes present on  surfaces. This then destroys the microbes as the QUATS destroy their cell walls – causing the microbes to die.

Although extremely effective at removing microbes, they have many negative side effects and are seen as unnecessarily strong cleaning agents so using QUAT-containing products in homes isn’t advised. Several agencies are also taking action to ban the use of QUATs in detergents.

common Examples:

  1. Benzalkonium chloride
  2. Diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride
  3. Quaternium-18
  4. Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides
  5. Dioctyldimethylammonium chloride

How to use them correctly:

First, wipe the surface with a microfibre cloth to ‘prepare’ the surface for disinfection. Following this, you should always read the safety label on the detergent to ensure that: you are using it correctly; have the correct PPE and you are aware of the risks it can impose. Make sure you read the label to find the exact directions for use as well as recommended contact time for the detergent. Contact time is crucial to efficient cleaning. If you don’t leave the detergent on for long enough, it will fail to destroy all microbes and therefore will not be useful as a disinfectant.

Are QUATS overkill?

It is advised not to use QUATS unless absolutely necessary. We found a great metaphor for this:  ‘It’s like killing a housefly with a sledgehammer’. Although it will effectively remove pathogens, it will also strip lots of ‘good microbes’ from the surface. 

As with many strong chemicals, there are several side effects associated with using QUAT – based detergents. These include:

  1. Irritation to lung tissue – this makes it particularly harmful to those suffering with conditions such as asthma
  2. Increased likelihood of QUAT and drug-resistant microbes developing with frequent use
  3. Irritation to skin


Although QUATs prove to be excellent at removing and destroying microbes from surfaces, the negative side effects outweigh the positive. Your home doesn’t need such a strong detergent for basic disinfection and cleaning. Unless you plan to perform surgery on your kitchen table we suggest that you use alternative detergents. Natural detergents can be a great alternative to strong chemical ones. You can find out what natural detergents are best for your cleaning here.