Choosing the right disinfectant

Disinfectant is having its moment in the spotlight, due to the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic. Maintaining a clean facility and home is now essential. With the increased emphasis on disinfected surfaces comes increased misinformation and misconceptions. Purchasing a disinfectant can be challenging as the list of active ingredients are lengthy and often difficult to understand.

Disinfectants exist to kill microbes and pathogens. Some active ingredients are safer for humans, the environment, and equipment than others. Understanding the science behind how disinfectants and their active ingredients work, and why some are safer, can help you decide which disinfectants will work best for your facility.

Contact Time

Before jumping into ingredients, let's talk about contact time. All disinfecting products need to stay wet on the surface for a certain amount of time to kill microorganisms listed on the label. Contact time is also referred to as "kill time," or "dwell time" on product labels. Contact time varies depending on the product, and often even between products made by the same company. Contact time can be a deciding factor when choosing a disinfectant, as they can range from 30 seconds to 10 minutes.


Bleach kills a vast spectrum of pathogens, including C. diff (C. difficile), which is prevalent in hospitals and is difficult to kill. However, bleach is corrosive with long term use. It can also be toxic and can cause respiratory issues like Asthma. It would be best to use gloves, a mask, and make sure the room is well ventilated when cleaning with bleach. Bleach can also harm the environment and kill the organisms that live in the environment, like fish. 

Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen Peroxide is one of the safest types of disinfectants for humans and the environment. Hydrogen peroxide is active against a wide range of microorganisms, including bacteria, yeasts, fungi, viruses, and spores. Hydrogen peroxide can carry excellent kill claims, but it can be unstable. If it comes into contact with other molecules like dirt and soil that haven't been cleaned before disinfecting, the effectiveness will degrade. Remember, it is only effective if you clean the surface with soap and water first.

Quaternary ammonium compound

Quaternary ammonium compounds or "quats" are active ingredients used in chemical disinfectants to kill pathogens like fungi, amoebas, mold, bacteria, and some viruses (like SARS-Cov-2 which causes COVID-19, and influenza ). When used correctly, they are ideal for infection control in most settings and are safe to use on almost all hard, nonporous surfaces.

When it comes to the health risks associated with quats, it comes down to concentration. As users demand quicker contact times and broader kill claims, some disinfectants will use higher quats concentrations or use an alcohol / quat formulation. Higher concentrations will come with increased health warnings. 

Alcohol/Quaternary ammonium 

Alcohol/Quaternary ammonium products use both quaternary ammonium and isopropyl or ethyl alcohol as the active ingredients. This is a great option because the higher alcohol content tends to give faster kill times and offer more kill claims. Typically, quats are great at killing gram-positive bacteria, and less effective at killing gram negative bacteria. Alcohol is a good addition because it is able to denature proteins which results in killing more microorganisms. These products are also gentle on surfaces and can be used frequently without risking damage. 


Knowing what the active ingredients in your disinfectant are, and the associated health and environmental risks associated, is as essential as the act of disinfecting. Choosing solutions that are registered with the EPA ensures you are using a product that is effective against the label claims. It is also beneficial to look for a product that has one-step cleaning and disinfecting, which speeds along the disinfecting process and ensures compliance. Even if you hire a cleaning company for your facility, you should understand the products they use to ensure their disinfection level is appropriate for your specific facility.