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Household Disinfectants: What's Behind the Label?

December 11, 2021

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Lysol, Clorox, Purell, Pine-Sol, Pure & Clean, Windex, Seventh Generation, and all the major brand names you might know in between. We've all seen these common household disinfectant brands before inside all kinds of stores or online. We know and use these name-brand cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants daily—maybe even too much.

However, have you ever stopped and wondered what's in them? They do a great job of cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting surfaces, objects, and practically anything tangible. People have even applied off-brand hand sanitizers without even thinking about it either. That's the thing. Whether we recognize these brands or not on the store shelves, we see these products, take them home, and use them without even considering what they're made of.

Well, we're going to give you a little insight on what's doing the heavy lifting inside these sanitizing and disinfecting products. We want to highlight what solutions are found in the products you know and use, how they work, and their possible side effects.

It wouldn't do us justice to list every brand within this post (leave it to Wikipedia), so we'll reverse engineer this post by focusing on their active ingredients listed in the brands you recognize. That way, the next time you finally see a sanitizer and disinfectant on a store shelf, you'll be making a well-informed decision if it's right for you.

The Choice Is Yours

In the world of household sanitizers and disinfectants, you might find a common denominator among them while shopping. You'll either see alcohol-based solutions, sodium hypochlorite solutions (chlorine), botanicals, quaternary ammonium compound solutions, and products with hypochlorous acid on the store shelves today. It's important to note here that these solutions aren't the only chemicals found in common household cleaners.

Some of these products have extra additives, surfactants, and stabilizers that keep the formula intact, and other ingredients that make the product effective. Sanitizing and disinfecting products have labels that list their features, ingredients, and hazards (if any), but we'll be focusing on their active ingredients in this post.

While these products may work effectively on surfaces, objects, or even the hands, as discussed below, it is important to follow their labels and safety guidelines. You'll also want to keep in mind the potential implications or side effects the product you're bringing home might cause if used incorrectly or in general.

Alcohol-Based Products (But Not the Ones You Drink)

We've all used some sort of alcohol-based sanitizer and disinfectant in our lives at some point. Whether it be an over-the-counter rubbing alcohol antiseptic for cuts, a moist towelette or wet wipe, or the popular hand sanitizer varieties. Hand sanitizers probably were the most highly purchased product during the pandemic.

A Person's Hand Dispensing an Alcohol-based Hand Sanitizer With a Caption Saying, 'Overusing Hand Sanitizers can Do More Harm Than Good'
You have hand sanitizer brands like Purell, who've branded their hand sanitizer formula in 1997, which was invented in 1988 by GOJO industries, and since then, they have become America's number one hand sanitizer in the market today. However, Purell's hand sanitizers have faced their fair share of scrutiny too.

At the start of the pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning to Purell to stop claiming that their hand sanitizers effectively eliminate diseases because there are no peer-reviewed studies to support their claims.

With that said, the CDC still recommends the use of hand sanitizers in their "Keeping Hands Clean" article, saying, "If soap and water are not readily available, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. You can tell if the sanitizer contains at least 60% alcohol by looking at the product's label." Though it may seem obvious to you. You can't rule out the possibility that people might not read the label's ingredients.

During these times, it's essential to have some form of protection to avoid cross-contamination of infectious diseases from surfaces to hands, but what about the hand sanitizer ingredients that do more harm than protecting?

The FDA banned 28 active ingredients in hand sanitizers, explicitly listing sanitizers with 1-propanol, triclosan, and methanol being unacceptable ingredients to be used in hand sanitizers. In fact, the FDA has an entire database dedicated to the list of hand sanitizers you shouldn't use, and they recommend hand sanitizers with a sufficient amount of ethyl or isopropyl alcohol. Now, ethyl and isopropyl alcohols fall into the denatured alcohol category of disinfectants, but what does that mean?

Well, here's your crash course into biochemistry. Denaturants are chemicals introduced into ethanol or grain alcohol to become denatured alcohol. This leaves the alcohol's qualities intact but is made unfit for human consumption. Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped kids from drinking hand sanitizers in the past.

Alcohol disinfectants with a concentration between 60-90% have great antimicrobial properties when it comes to killing germs, viruses, and some bacteria. But here are some quick facts about alcohol-based disinfectants. Alcohols can evaporate quickly, damage surfaces, are not as effective if surfaces are unclean, and can cause skin irritations since they dry the skin—so use skin lotion after hand sanitizers! They have trouble inactivating some non-enveloped viruses such as hepatitis A, rotavirus, and adenovirus, and are ineffective against bacterial spores. Another fact about alcohol-based disinfectants is that they can be extremely flammable—even hand sanitizers.

We're not saying to you that you shouldn't use hand sanitizers at all. We just want you to make sure you're purchasing the right one with at least 60% ethyl or isopropyl alcohol in it and that it doesn't contain the list of banned ingredients we mentioned earlier. Alcohol-based disinfectants are very popular, just like this next everyday disinfectant we all know and use.

Sodium Hypochlorite, but My Friends Call Me "Bleach"

Sodium hypochlorite may not be a familiar name on paper, but we all know it when we see it on store shelves. Brand names like Clorox immediately come to mind since they began marketing chlorine bleach at the turn of the 20th century. We use bleach for making white clothes whiter, dark hair blonder, swimming pools cleaner, and surfaces a lot less germier in our homes or businesses. Chlorine bleach is easy to use, safe if you follow the directions carefully, and inexpensive to make and buy.

A Person Holding a Bleach Bottle With Caption That Reads, ' Bleahc is Easy to Use and Safe If You Follow the Directions Carefully'
It's going to get a little sciency here, but chlorine is a chemical found in natural places like our oceans, rivers, lakes, soils, the Earth's crust and other organic places, so we'll just say it comes from "the salts of the Earth." Sodium hypochlorites are composed of sodium, oxygen, and chlorine to form NaOCl. Sodium hypochlorite is formed by negatively charging hypochlorite ions with positively charged sodium ions (salt). Hypochlorites in their purest form are unstable and need to be diluted in watery solutions. From there, it decomposes by releasing byproducts such as oxygen, chlorine gas, salt, and as it comes in contact with water or bromine, it can form another product we'll get into later called hypochlorous acid.

Due to bleach's reactive nature, it will damage rubber materials, fabrics that aren't white, plastics, and its corrosive on some metals. When using bleach at home, you must follow the instructions on the label because bleach is highly irritable to the skin, respiratory system, and eyes, can burn the skin, and is extremely toxic if ingested. Some of the side effects of prolonged exposure to bleach are headaches and migraines, muscle weakness, stomach pains, nausea and vomiting, to list a few. A not so fun fact is that bleach doesn't mix well with ammonia-based cleaners and can form a toxic gas. A lot of these things may be well known, but during the pandemic, there were a lot of new users and absent minds. It is critical to use potentially dangerous chemicals the right way.

These are the things you should look out for when using bleach products, and we highly encourage you to dilute bleach according to its label. We'll talk about bleach's byproduct to shed some light on this disinfectant that has seen some growth in popularity in recent years.

Meet Bleach's Cousin: Hypochlorous Acid

Pure & Clean, Force of Nature, GenEon Technologies and Germinator, what do we have in common? We use hypochlorous acid (HOCl) as our choice of disinfectant. More and more people are choosing hypochlorous acid as their choice of sanitizer and disinfectant to use at home because of its extensive history in the medical field and its natural properties.

Image of HOCl Formula With Caption That Says, HOCl is 'The Next-gen of Pathogen Fighting Disinfectants
According to the US National Library of Medicine (NLM) article, "A Modern Approach to Disinfection, as Old as the Evolution of Vertebrates," our immune systems naturally produce HOCl to fight off infections, and as a disinfectant, it is effective against a broad spectrum of pathogens. The NLM even states that the modern approach to making HOCl "mirrors" our body's defense system. HOCl is made when salts are introduced into electrolyzed water, which synthesizes the aqueous solution into a near-neutral pH solution.

However, the production of HOCl has advanced since the 70s and can even be made at home, but its ability to maintain a neutral pH balance is where things get tricky. HOCl becomes less stable if exposed to UV sunlight, makes contact with the air if the product is left opened and exposed, or when temperatures elevate more than 25°C (77°F), according to NLM's article "Hypochlorous Acid: A Review."

Out of all the solutions mentioned in this post, hypochlorous acid should be on your radar as a consumer who is either looking for services that use this solution or if you want to use it at your home or office. The US NLM's review of HOCl states:

"HOCl has been shown to inactivate various viruses, including coronaviruses, in less than one minute. At a concentration of 200 ppm, HOCl is effective in decontaminating inert surfaces carrying noroviruses and other enteric viruses in a one-minute contact time."

Despite a shortened shelf life, HOCl is a very powerful sanitizer and disinfectant. It's an inexpensive product with a great safety profile, and it's derived from naturally occurring minerals. Speaking of natural, let's find out what botanicals are all about.

Botanicals: Nature's Answer to Disinfecting

Who knew that there were more natural ways of disinfecting versus chemicals. In fact, a proper mix of vinegar and lemon juice can break a number of pathogens down to an undetectable level, according to this NLM article's Effectiveness of Natural Household Sanitizers in the Elimination of Salmonella Typhimurium." There are many natural products that clean, sanitize, and disinfect surfaces, but we'd like to focus on this one particular botanical that you may have seen if you've ever picked up a bottle of Seventh Generation or Bioesque Botanical Disinfectant Solution and those like it. The active disinfecting ingredient in these brands is Thymol.

Image of Products Containing Botanicals, With a Caption That Reads, 'Thymol Is an All-Natural Active Disinfecting Ingredient'
Thymol is found in thyme oil, and it occurs naturally in apples. We were just kidding—it comes from the thyme plant! The EPA has reviewed thymol as an active ingredient to use as an animal repellent, fungicide, tuberculocide, virucide, and as a medical disinfectant.

Products containing thymol, such as Clean Well's entire product lineup, allows people to clean and disinfect without the harsh smell of chemicals or bleach. For example, their products only use a 0.05% concentration of thymol and can kill up to 99.9% of germs. Thymols were reviewed as non-toxic, alcohol-free, and safe for food surfaces according to the EPA in 2009.

Quats: They're Literally in Everything

Ever felt that slippery feel when you use your favorite shampoo and conditioner or are amazed that your hair's frizz is under control? That's quaternary ammonium compounds (quats or QACs) at work. Do you love the smooth feeling of your clothes after using Suavitel or Snuggle fabric softeners and sheets? Yup, that's QACs at work again. The Environmental Working Group article, "Don't Get Slimed: Skip the Fabric Softener," states that this silky and smooth feeling is a "mouthful of chemicals" in the quaternary ammonium compound family that produces this effect; however, not all QACs are bad.

You've probably bought a product containing QACs if you ever used an all-purpose cleaner or wet wipe because they make for great disinfectants for the home or office. Products such as Clorox Disinfecting Wipes contain QACs, Lysol sprays, Pine-sol cleaners, dishwashing liquids, hand soaps, some Windex window cleaners, most "all-purpose" cleaners, and products that advertise antibacterial properties. It's important to read the label and follow the directions because a lot of cleaners and disinfectants contain a variety of QACs. The one you want to look out for is benzalkonium chloride.

Image of products
Benzalkonium chloride is an infamous member of the quaternary ammonium compound family known to be a skin irritant and asthmagen, and the list of compounds doesn't end there. The Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics classified quats as "respiratory sensitizers," and the EPA classifies them as skin and eye irritants.

The EPA approves Clorox and Lysol products for use, but they warn users that they can cause temporary eye injuries, and users must wash their hands after use. The problem with these products is that there's an opportunity for misuse and injury is possible. Another fact to highlight environmentally is that they are harmful to aquatic life.

QACs are an amazing disinfectant when used appropriately because they have a broad spectrum of uses against a wide variety of pathogens. They're extremely effective against mold, mildew, fungus, and odor-causing bacteria. However, their limitations of disinfecting action can be interfered by hard water (water with high amounts of minerals), soap scum, dirt, grime, and will be ineffective if the surfaces aren't clean, generally speaking.

When you're cleaning, sanitizing or disinfecting, no matter what solution you're using, you want to be sure that you are cleaning your surfaces first before anything and if you're sanitizing your hands, at least try to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water first before grabbing that bottle of hand sanitizer. The only way for sanitizers and disinfectants to actually work is if you remove the particles first. Choosing a brand to stick by is great and all, but there's power in knowing what's actually in them.

It's Up to You

There are so many products and brands to choose from, thanks to the pandemic we became much more vigilant in the way we clean, so much so that we might overlook what's actually in the product themselves. The fact still remains, we're cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting more than ever before.

What we saw at the beginning of the pandemic was an emergence of products rushing to get the EPA's blessing on whether their products were deemed acceptable for use, or the opposite, in the case of hand sanitizers, actually were banned as suppliers ship them into the country without being reviewed by the EPA or FDA in the first place.

All in all, brands like Lysol, Purell, Pine-Sol, Seventh Generation, Force of Nature, and Clorox are great to use at home or at work, but it does help to know how to use them and what they're made up of. You want to know if certain cleaning products don't mix well with others or you might find yourself in harm's way. So, before you pick up a bottle of cleaner that sanitizes and disinfects, ask yourself, "This product meets my cleaning and disinfection needs, but does it meet my safety needs?"

It's up to you to decide and that's why we live in the Information Age where you won't have to find out firsthand if it is or not. Stay safe out there and feel free to browse our other blogs for more resourceful information. #LiveProtected

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