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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  1. Thanks for this – and all the other – Toxic Tuesday posts! It’s a nice change to have somebody looking out for your well-being without the hidden agenda of selling a product. That said, while helpful, I also find these slightly overwhelming to read. There is so much we need to look out for and it seems a gargantuan task to find products that don’t have a few of these toxic ingredients. With that said, I’d find it – and I’m sure the majority of your readers would as well – extremely helpful if you could create a post of suggested products, following from your Toxic Tuesday posts. Perhaps with multiple options under a variety of products – toothpaste, nail polish, mascara… as well as the products we think about less, like candles, perfumes,… and so on. I realize this is a huge asking but I think something of this nature would greatly help us navigate through these (toxic) waters!

    Kelly | 11.13.2012 | Reply
    • Thank you for reading and for your wonderful feedback, Kelly! We love your suggestion, and will definitely take it into consideration as we move forward in our quest to keep our readers happy, healthy, and toxin-free!

      The Chalkboard | 11.13.2012 | Reply

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