Many people don't know that they use products containing the surfactant benzalkonium chloride. It's in pharmaceutical products, deodorants, shampoos, sanitizers, and even more. So, what is it, and what does it do? The truth is that there are both good and bad benzalkonium side effects. Benzalkonium chloride's effectiveness depends on where and how you use the chemical. However, using benzalkonium may result in serious harm without proper caution.
What Is Benzalkonium?
Scientifically speaking, benzalkonium (or benzalkonium chloride, specifically) is a type of cationic surfactant. Surfactants are chemicals that lower surface tension. Its scientific name is "alkyldimethylbenzylammonium chloride," but it is also known as ADBAC, BZK, BKC, and BAC. Depending on how pure the benzalkonium concentration is, it will appear colorless to a pale yellow. However, only a small amount of benzalkonium chloride is in other products, which means we never see its color in everyday life.
Pure benzalkonium chloride is toxic to both humans and animals. It is considered an irritant to both skin and eyes and can cause severe damage to the body if taken orally or intravenously. There was a case in Japan earlier in 2018 where a nurse purposely injected the elderly with lethal doses of disinfectant containing benzalkonium chloride. If accidentally ingested, it would be bitter and have an almond-like taste. Always talk to your doctor before using a product containing benzalkonium chloride and if you suspect this substance has poisoned you, seek immediate medical attention.
How Is Benzalkonium Chloride Used?
Ingesting or receiving benzalkonium chloride intravenously is by no means recommended, as it can cause serious medical implications. However, used the right way in the correct dosage, benzalkonium chloride can be an effective defense against the spread of bacteria. Here are some proper ways to use benzalkonium chloride.
Industrial cleaning agent
Benzalkonium chloride is a common ingredient found in many household cleaning products. Companies such as Zep use benzalkonium in their aerosol garbage can cleaner. This helps to eliminate potentially harmful bacteria — something commonly found in places where there may be rotting food and other trash.
Lysol also uses benzalkonium chloride as an ingredient in their bathroom cleaner to eliminate soap scum. Soap scum develops when hard water and soap mix and build up in our bathrooms. It usually affects areas such as sinks, tubs, and shower curtains. Brands such as Lysol, S.O.S, Scrubbing Bubbles, and many, many more all use this chemical because of its antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties.
In small, calculates doses, benzalkonium chloride can be used in beauty products as well as personal hand sanitizers. Products such as Purell hand sanitizing wipes contain anywhere from 0.1 to one percent benzalkonium chloride in each wipe. The amount is so little that there is no great harm if accidentally ingested or if some of the product contacts eyes. However, anyone who has accidentally ingested the product (or have had their eyes come in contact with the product) should seek medical attention just to be safe.
Benzalkonium chloride is an active ingredient in personal hand wipes and gels to eliminate the risk of transmitting diseases and illnesses. By sanitizing our hands, we kill any lingering dirt or grime that may have harmful bacteria — similar to industrial cleaning agents.
It may come as a surprise to you that this chemical is also present in many beauty products such as shampoos, soaps, bath capsules, and even makeup. Brands including Aveeno, Avon, and SoftSoap use benzalkonium chloride for several reasons. This includes inhibiting the growth of microorganisms, as a detergent, and to produce more foam in the bath.
Benzalkonium chloride is also an active chemical for medicinal purposes. Not unlike beauty products, this chemical is in small amounts in conjunction with many other ingredients. It is used to kill microorganisms by stopping their growth. Benzalkonium chloride is in medicinal products including foot odor powder and rash cream.
If you quickly search a doctor's office, you may also find benzalkonium chloride — an alternative to alcohol wipes. These benzalkonium antiseptic towelettes can also be found in First Aid kits to clean wounds and prep for bandages.
Lastly, it used to destroy facial microorganisms by being an active ingredient in facial lotion and cleanser. Plus, it helps water mix with dirt so everything can be washed away — particularly useful after a long day outside!
Good Benzalkonium Side Effects
While this chemical is somewhat dangerous in concentrated doses, it is an acceptable ingredient in low amounts for many everyday items. There's more than a few good benzalkonium side effects which are beneficial to our daily lives.
Good benzalkonium side effects when used as an industrial cleaning agent
Benzalkonium chloride is an alternative to alcohol but serves the same purpose — that is, to clean and sanitize surfaces. Although there is some debate as to the effectiveness of benzalkonium versus alcohol, they are both suitable for cleaning solutions.
There is one main advantage to using benzalkonium chloride instead of alcohol clean: It will not dry out your skin. For instance, imagine using your kitchen counter to cut a slab of meat. Now, you need to clean it before cutting vegetables. You can use safely use a Lysol-branded product with benzalkonium chloride as an ingredient. Wiping the counter, knife, and cutting board helps avoid spreading illnesses including Salmonella, E.coli, and Listeria. Plus, it won’t dry out your hands as much an alcohol-based product will.
Good benzalkonium side effects when used topically and medically
Some products contain benzalkonium chloride so bacteria will not manifest in their makeup products. Killing bacteria is especially important for makeup that has been sitting on counters for a long time. Remember to check your makeup expiration dates as well, as they do expire!
Due to its antimicrobial properties, this chemical is also a known ingredient in contact solution. This may seem ironic because, after all, many websites say benzalkonium chloride should not come in contact with the eyes. However, it is important to remember that this chemical is only one of many ingredients in the product. The benzalkonium chloride solution keeps your contacts fresh, clean, and ick-free.
Another excellent benzalkonium side effect is how it works on skin. Combined in minute amounts in solutions with other products, benzalkonium decreases bacteria on the skin surface. Avon, for example, sells an antiperspirant with significant amounts of benzalkonium chloride to do just that. Orajel is a medicated cold sore treatment which contains 0.13 percent of benzalkonium chloride for that very same reason.
Bad Benzalkonium Side Effects
Like any drug, there are good and bad effects to using it. While the good includes having clearer skin or having bacteria-free kitchen counters, you'll need to watch out for the not-to-pleasant effects. Those who use benzalkonium chloride should be aware that they may have adverse side effects because they are allergic to the chemical. Remember always to consult your doctor before using benzalkonium chloride.
If you are allergic to benzalkonium chloride, your skin may first become red and irritated. Benzalkonium side effects also include minor allergic reactions, such as skin irritation which may progress to a rash.
A more severe reaction includes swelling skin. Potentially, a bad reaction could lead to blisters and peeling. Like most allergic reactions, if left untreated you may begin to experience tightness in the chest and have trouble breathing. Immediately call a doctor or go to an emergency center if you feel any one of many of these symptoms, which could be life-threatening if not treated.
How to Use Benzalkonium Chloride Properly
Before you start using any product, it is imperative to talk to your doctor first. This will reduce (if not eliminate) the risk of finding out you are allergic to the product after you’ve already purchased and used it. Once you’ve received the green light from a medical professional, always test the product first. This means trying a small drop of the facial cleanser on an inconspicuous place or cleaning your counter with just a small amount of cleanser. If no adverse reactions occur within a couple of hours, proceed with caution.
If you have used a benzalkonium chloride product and suspect you are allergic, contact your nearest emergency center. The faster you receive medical treatment, the better the prognosis.