In my latest blog post, we discussed the law that guarantees your right to know what is in your cleaning and disinfecting products. In this post, you will learn how to understand the different ingredients in your products and what they are used for.

The active ingredient gives your product its antimicrobial power

Active ingredients, such as bleach or quaternary ammonium chlorides, are what gives cleaning and disinfectant products that “oomph” against bacteria and viruses. They are the do-ers and are responsible for exactly how a product works. Quaternary ammonium chlorides poke holes in bacterial membranes, bleach disintegrates membranes, and most active ingredients will degrade proteins. However, these ingredients are often not completely active on their own. They need helpers.

Take hydrogen peroxide for example. Hydrogen peroxide can be a very powerful disinfectant. However, a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution you get at the pharmacy will not be as good at killing microbes as a disinfectant product containing less than 1% hydrogen peroxide when mixed into an appropriate formulation. This is because in the presence of the right buffer, hydrogen peroxide can become a much better oxidizer, which will make it more effective at killing microbes. Similarly, bleach, or sodium hypochlorite, will be better at killing microbes at different pH conditions. At low pH, sodium hypochlorite becomes its acidic counterpart, hypochlorous acid. Hypochlorous acid is a much stronger antimicrobial, but it is only present at low pH. These differences can be attributed to the formulation of a product.

We expect more from our disinfecting products than efficacy

The overall formulation changes many things about a product with the same active ingredient. Besides the ability to kill microbes, a formulation can create products with a wide variety of special skills. Our disinfecting products often do double, or even triple duty.

We want our disinfectants to be:

  • As good at cleaning dirt, grease, and grime as they are effective at killing pathogens
  • Pleasant smelling to improve the aesthetics of a room after we have cleaned
  • Safe to use on many different types of surfaces and to leave minimal or no residue
  • Safe to use around children and pets
  • Shelf stable so that we can use them week after week without losing any efficacy.

The product formulation can accomplish all these wishes. Fragrances are added to improve the aesthetics, surfactants and detergents break up dirt and grease and aid in spot cleaning, and additives may improve product stability and provide greater surface compatibility.

Appreciate the forms of your formulations!

In addition to the results we want from disinfectants, the forms they take are equally important. Formulations that are safe to use through trigger sprays may not be suitable for use through an electrostatic device, as they may cause excessive fragrance or irritation. Because of this, you might notice that disinfectant solutions designed to be used in electrostatics devices contain minimal ingredients and no fragrances. Always be sure to follow the directions for use on the product label and avoid using products in formats they are not approved for. This will ensure safety, and that you get the most out of each carefully constructed disinfectant formulation.

Learn about the functions of some common ingredients

See the table below to learn more about what common ingredients add to the product formulation.

Ingredient TypeExamplesPurpose
Antimicrobial (often the “active ingredient)Sodium hypochlorite (Bleach)
Hydrogen peroxide
Dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (Quat)
Kills microbes (e.g, bacteria, viruses, fungi)
Helps cover surfaces and deliver active ingredient to microbes
Surfactants/Detergents (the “cleaners”)Sodium lauryl sulfate
Glycolic acid
Propylheptyl ether (PEG/PPG)
Dissolves soils and helps physically remove microbes and dirt
AdditivesSodium hydroxide
Sodium carbonate
Phosphoric acid
Provides stability for the formula or helps protect surfaces from damage
Gives the product a pleasant smell or masks odors

The next time you look at an ingredients list, notice all the components that work together for the final product from microbe-killing to aesthetics.