What’s in Your Surface Disinfectant?

Disinfectant Ingredient Comparisons for Safety

Disinfectant ingredients often generate health risks. Hypochlorous acid makes an excellent choice for safety, disinfecting power and savings.

Germs are a part of everyday life. Some of them are helpful, but others are harmful and cause disease. They can be found everywhere – in our air, soil, and water. They are on our skin and in our bodies. Germs are also on the surfaces and objects that we touch. Sometimes those germs (like viruses and bacteria) can spread to you and make you sick. For example, there could be germs on a TV remote, kitchen counter, doorknobs, and more. You could get infected with the germs if you touch these germ-covered items and then rub your eyes or nose or eat with your hands.

Surface disinfectants kill viruses and bacteria that spread illnesses, and they are registered with the EPA as antimicrobial pesticides. According to the EPA, hand sanitizers, antibacterial soap and antiseptic ashes are also regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. None of the sanitizer-only products protect against viruses. Surface disinfectants undergo more rigorous testing, so consumers can trust that the claims made on the labels of safe disinfectants are supported by facts (1).

The Difference Between Cleaning and Disinfecting

Augusta Health, a Virginia-based healthcare facility, defined cleaning as the removal of germs and dirt from surfaces. Cleaning will not kill germs; it simply removes them or reduces the number of germs in order to lower the risk of infection. On the other hand, disinfecting is defined as a process that uses chemicals to kill germs (2).

Cleaning and disinfecting are not the same and not interchangeable because they serve different purposes. Instead, they go hand in hand. Cleaning a surface is recommended before disinfecting the area to kill bacteria and viruses. Unfortunately, cleaning with only a disinfectant might not do the job properly because dirt and debris get moved around and can provide hiding places for microbes. Removing the visible dirt before disinfecting helps provide more optimal results.

Professional cleaning products often make claims that seem similar — such as claiming they kill bacteria and sanitize surfaces. This is not the same thing as virus disinfecting, which also kills the viruses responsible for most common illnesses like colds and flu. Another major concern is the active ingredients in professional cleaning products.

Unfortunately, trying to make a safe home often results in using harsh chemicals and toxins that raise other health concerns. Using safe disinfectants is an important strategy for the home, office, day care centers, hospitals, clinics and other healthcare facilities. Virus disinfecting products can cause negative effects in people’s endocrine, developmental and reproductive systems, increase the risks of some cancers and damage basic DNA.

Ingredients in Commonly Used Disinfectants

According to a post by the American Cleaning Institute, the possibility of interactions between cleaning products can produce toxic gases, and strengthen the cleaning power of the product or weaken it. That’s a significant factor in why consumers should always check the ingredients in cleaning and disinfecting products (3). Reading the labels can warn you of possibly dangerous interactions and cover how to use the products safely — such as using a product only in a well-ventilated area.

Even the types of cloth and mop you use can affect product performance and safety. Using paper towels with disinfectants can disintegrate them. Pre-moistened wipes have become popular, but people shouldn’t try to make their own versions because the commercial products are designed to be non-reactive.

The following chemicals and natural cleaning compounds are used in popular brands of disinfectants:

  • Chlorine Bleach
    Chlorine bleach, also known as sodium hypochlorite (4), ranks as one of the most commonly used disinfectants, but there are many contraindications for use in clean rooms, homes and businesses. Chlorine was first used as a disinfectant in the 1880s, and hypochlorite solutions — liquid bleach — became popular in the 1930s.

    Unfortunately, chlorine bleach irritates and corrodes tissue in the lungs, eyes and skin. Many people are extremely sensitive to the effects and develop rashes, migraines, abdominal discomfort, nausea, muscle weakness, esophageal perforations and vomiting when exposed to the chemical. Bleach also interacts with ammonia to produce a toxic gas, and it reacts similarly to vinegar and any acidic compound.
  • Chlorine-free Bleach
    Bleach without chlorine is often called “oxidizing bleach” or “color-safe bleach”. This is used for many household purposes like whitening clothes, but that doesn’t mean that some family members aren’t feeling skin irritations, developing occasional rashes and other symptoms. Bleach is a caustic chemical that disrupts the lipid envelope surrounding viruses and oxidizes the sulfur bonds in virus metabolites. It work fast to disinfect in about a minute, but bleach can damage the skin, airways, mucus membranes and clothing.
  • Peroxides
    Peroxides are often added as disinfecting ingredients in cleaners, and it is regarded as one of the safest disinfectants for household use. The compound won’t leave residue and kills pathogens, but it’s not safe to use too often on the skin because it can irritate. The kind of peroxide available at the drug store contains a solution of 3 percent peroxide and water, and that’s strong enough to kill bacteria, viruses, spores and fungi. The disinfectant also work well against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is the coronavirus.
  • Quaternary Ammonium Compounds
    Also known as QACs or “quats”, quaternary ammonium compounds include lots of derivatives because the four atoms of hydrogen combine easily with other chemicals. That creates a number of disinfecting agents, and new products are currently being researched. The various derivatives share key advantages and disadvantages.

    The benefits include low prices and widespread availability, and the compounds won’t damage carpets, drapes and furniture like bleach. However, even the undiluted compounds can burn the skin and inflame the mucous membranes. The disinfectants are rendered less effective when cleaning organic matter, so pre-cleaning the area is recommended before disinfecting.
  • Alcohols and Ethanol
    Many people chose rubbing alcohol as a disinfectant of choice during the COVID-19 crisis, and supplies of the product were stockpiled until they disappeared from shelves for several months. Isopropyl alcohol and ethanol have currently not been approved as ingredients for disinfectants by the EPA, although alcohol can be used as a germicide because it kills bacteria, viruses and fungi. It can be used to disinfect hands, and healthcare workers use it to disinfect skin and clean wounds.

    Unfortunately, alcohol and ethanol share the reduced effectiveness of many other compounds when used to clean away organic matter. Alcohol works slowly against non-enveloped viruses, has no inherent cleaning properties, damages rubber by hardening it and deteriorates glue. The substance is highly flammable and can’t be used near an open flame.
  • Lactic Acid and Citrus Acid
    Lactic acid, which the body produces naturally for digestion, is one of the “safe” disinfectants, but it can be corrosive and dangerous. Both lactic and citric acids are considered safe, but getting pure citrus juice in the eyes illustrates how much these compounds can irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory system.
  • Phenols
    According to a document published by the University of Pittsburgh EH&S, the phenols include the chemicals phenylphenol, O-Benzyl-p chlorophenol, O-phenylphenol and Thymol, which can destroy many pathogens. However, they’re not 100 percent effective at killing all viruses, and the compound won’t kill some types of bacteria (5). At greater concentrations, phenols’ power to disinfect increases to a satisfactory level, but its use is generally limited to laboratories.

    Phenols have a strong, unpleasant odor, cause irritation of the skin and eyes and burn the skin in concentrated doses. The compound is toxic if inhaled or ingested.
  • Sodium Hypochlorite
    Sodium hypochlorite forms bleach when diluted, and the chemical compound is also known as hypochlorite acid. The compound is unstable and mixes with ammonia to form toxic chlorine gas. Although cheap and effective at killing pathogens, the chemical is highly corrosive and causes skin irritation.
  • Hydrochloric Acid
    Hydrochloric acid is produced by the body to help in digestion. The strong properties of this disinfecting chemical make it a common ingredient used in toilet bowl cleaners. As a cleaning disinfectant, hydrochloric acid use is generally limited to toilet bowl cleaning and disinfecting because the substance burns the skin, eyes, mouth and throat.
  • Hypochlorous Acid
    Hypochlorous acid is a compound that is naturally produced by the human body as art of the body’s immune response. The compound kills microorganisms and fights against infections without damaging the body’s tissues. That makes it an ideal, natural choice for chemical free disinfecting.

    The compound works so gently that it is the ideal choice for use in hospitals, healthcare practices and medical companies because it works powerfully enough to eradicate even stubborn biofilm residue. Leaving behind no dangerous residue of its own, the substance is used to wash and disinfect fresh produce, clean wounds and other chemical free disinfecting jobs. Sani-Powder is an EPA-registered hypochlorous acid disinfectant that’s ideal for the home and safe to use around children, pets, and the environment.  


There are a lot of gimmicks out there on the market today that promise to help kill bacteria to create a safer living and working environment. However, the trade-off for these products could be potential health threats that could harm and injure your family and working staff. When choosing a disinfectant, it is important to learn about what goes in your cleaning products to ensure safety not just from germs, but from health risks.


Environmental Protection Agency (n.d.). What’s the difference between products that disinfect, sanitize, and clean surfaces? Accessed on Jun. 1, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/coronavirus/whats-difference-between-products-disinfect-sanitize-and-clean-surfaces

Augusta Health (2020). Is There a Difference Between Cleaning and Disinfecting? Accessed on Jun. 1, 2021, from https://www.augustahealth.com/health-focused/is-there-a-difference-between-cleaning-and-disinfecting

American Cleaning Institute (n.d.). Quaternary ammonium compounds: FAQ on common disinfectant ingredients. Accessed on Jun. 1, 2021, from https://www.cleaninginstitute.org/understanding-products/disinfectants/quaternary-ammonium-compounds-faq-common-disinfectant

Lenntech (n.d.). Disinfectants Sodium hypochlorite. Accessed on Jun. 1, 2021, from https://www.lenntech.com/processes/disinfection/chemical/disinfectants-sodium-hypochlorite.htm

University of Pittsburgh Environmental Health and Safety (2020). Choosing an Appropriate Disinfectant: Guidance for Laboratories and Non-laboratory Settings. Accessed on Jun. 1, 2021, from https://www.ehs.pitt.edu/sites/default/files/docs/Disinfectant-InfoAndRecommendations.pdf

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