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All about the Chemistry  

Why active ingredients matter in disinfectant products

Active ingredients, such as bleach or quaternary ammonium chlorides, are what gives cleaning and disinfectant products their strength against bacteria and viruses.1,2 And the science matters! Each class of active ingredient works in its own way. For example, quaternary ammonium chlorides poke holes in bacterial membranes, and chlorine-releasing compounds, like bleach, disintegrates membranes. Most active ingredients will degrade proteins, thereby killing pathogens.2

Ingredients do not reflect full potential on their own. They need helpers.

The peroxygen class of disinfectants, which includes hydrogen peroxide, can be a very effective disinfectant but the amount of hydrogen peroxide in the formula is not the key driver here. You might be surprised to hear that 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.2 This is because in the 1% hydrogen peroxide disinfectant, it is mixed into an effective formulation. In the presence of the right buffer, hydrogen peroxide can become a much better oxidizer, which will make it more effective at killing microscopic pathogens.

Similarly, chlorine-releasing compounds like bleach, or sodium hypochlorite, will be better at killing microbes at different pH conditions. At low pH, sodium hypochlorite converts to its acidic counterpart, hypochlorous acid. Though hypochlorous acid is a much stronger antimicrobial, it is available only at low pH. A product containing bleach can be formulated to have a lower pH in order to increase the antimicrobial efficacy.

Again, with cleaners and disinfectants, it’s all about the chemistry.2

Disinfecting products providing efficacy and more…

During the process of developing a product formulation, it is possible to may change performance criteria about a to create different products with the same active ingredient. Besides the ability to kill microbes, formula variants can create products with a wide variety of product attributes.

Disinfectants can cover some or all of these attributes:

  • Effective at killing pathogens
  • Effective at cleaning dirt, grease, and grime
  • Without an offensive or harsh odour, ideally pleasant smelling to improve the aesthetic of hard surfaces after they have been cleaned
  • Safe to use on many different types of hard surfaces and leave minimal or no residue
  • Safe to use around children and pets, when used as directed
  • Shelf stable at room temperature so that we can use them week after week without losing efficacy

A superior product formulation can accomplish many or all of these objectives. 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 your formulations

In addition to the results expected from disinfectants, the formats that they are commercially available in are equally important.2 For example, formulations that are approved for use by Health Canada through trigger sprays may not be suitable and thus not approved for use through an electrostatic sprayer device.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the increase in cleaning and disinfection of public spaces (to reduce the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19) there has been increased interest in electrostatic spray disinfectants, which can be used to disinfect large indoor spaces. Electrostatic sprayers work by charging the antimicrobial liquid as it passes through a nozzle. The positively charged antimicrobial droplets are attracted to negatively charged environmental surfaces allowing for improved coverage on hard, non-porous environmental surfaces.3,4, As a result, not just any disinfectant solution can be used in electrostatic spray devices.

Check the label – it will tell you if your product is approved for use with an electrostatic sprayer device.  These products need to have the Health Canada review and approval for use with an electrostatic sprayer (ES). To check whether a product has the ES designation, visit Health Canada’s COVID-19 database at https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-health-products/

disinfectants/covid-19/list.html. If your product has “Electrostatic Spray” in the “Product form” column, it’s approved for use by Health Canada with an electrostatic sprayer.5

Finally, always be sure to follow the directions for use on the product label. Using products correctly as directed will help to ensure safety and efficacy, and that you get the most out of each carefully formulated disinfectant.

Learn about the functions of some common ingredients

Take a look at the label of the cleaning and disinfecting products you are currently using. Do you know what the ingredients add to the product formulation? Our handy table can show you1,2 (Below References)

When you are considering a product, notice all the components that work together for the final product from microbe-killing to aesthetics. The chemistry matters!

Learn more about CloroxPro®. CloroxPro® has developed disinfecting-sanitizing products that are registered at Health Canada to help meet the needs of your facility.

Ingredient TypeExamplesPurpose
Antimicrobial (often the “active ingredient)Sodium hypochlorite (Bleach) (Chlorine- releasing compound)
Hydrogen peroxide (Peroxygen)
Dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (Quat)
Kills microbes (e.g., bacteria, viruses, fungi)
SolventWater
Alcohol
Ethanolamine
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
FragranceLimonene
Myrcene
Linalool
Gives the product a pleasant smell or masks odours
  1. What’s the difference between products that disinfect, sanitize, and clean surfaces? https://www.epa.gov/coronavirus/whats-difference-between-products-disinfect-sanitize-and-clean-surfaces. Accessed July 5, 2021.
  2. Hochberg K. What’s In Your Disinfectant and Why It Matters. https://www.cloroxpro.com/blog/whats-in-your-disinfectant-and-why-it-matters/. Accessed July 5, 2021.
  1. Velez K. Electrostatic technology: A new method for surface disinfection. CloroxPro Canada, December 7, 2020.
  2. Velez K. Evaluating Electrostatic Sprayers for Surface Disinfection. CloroxPro Canada. 2020.
  3. Government of Canada. Hard-surface disinfectants and hand sanitizers (COVID-19): List of disinfectants with evidence for use against COVID-19. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-health-products/disinfectants/covid-19/list.html. Accessed November 15, 2021.

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