Toxic Timeout Ingredient Focus: Quaternary Ammonium Compounds

What is it? Called “Quats” for short, Quaternary Ammonium Compounds are chemical preservatives used commonly in hair conditioners, shampoos and lotions to impart a slippery and smooth feel to the hair and skin. They are also used as surfactants and germicides in many products. Quats is often listed on labels as Benzalkonium Chloride, Cetrimonium Bromide and Quaternium-15.

Health Risk: There are a number of risks associated with Quats. Firstly, they are known to cause skin and respiratory irritation, and some people are highly allergic to them. Secondly, some quaternary ammonium compounds, like benzalkonium chloride, are phenolic and have been found to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with hormone function within the body. Thirdly, they are toxic to aquatic life, so they’re not good for the environment when washed downstream.

Quaternium-15 is a formaldehyde releaser and the number one cause of preservative-related contact dermatitis. For about 5% of people, Quats are an extreme sensitizer and can cause a variety of asthma-like symptoms, including respiratory arrest. When they are used with hot running water, the steam increases the inhalation of vapours.

Whilst Quats make your hair and skin feel immediately softer after use, long-term usage will cause dryness. Concentrated solutions of quaternary ammonium compounds are corrosive and can cause burns to the skin and the mucous membranes. They can also produce systemic toxicity due to their curare-like properties. In case you were wondering, curare is a paralyzing poison used by South American indigenous people to kill their prey. Their arrows were dipped in curare and shot at their prey, which in turn lead to their untimely death by asphyxiation, owing to the inability of the victim’s respiratory muscles to contract. Scary stuff…but now that you know what to avoid, you’ll be better prepared to make safer, greener decisions!

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