Q&A: Do Disinfecting Wipes Pose a Health Hazard at Schools?

Q&A: Do Disinfecting Wipes Pose a Health Hazard at Schools?

January 20, 2023

By Megan Boyle, Editorial Director

Cheap and convenient, disinfecting wipes are go-to cleaning products for households nationwide. They’re also a growing favorite at schools, where teachers and families alike appreciate their easy-to-use, germ-fighting properties.

But disinfecting chemicals are not necessary for routine cleaning and they can introduce kids to potentially hazardous ingredients. Click here to learn more about the trouble with disinfecting wipes.

That’s why Healthy Child Healthy World was concerned when Lysol, a cleaning industry giant, recently partnered with the National Education Association and National Parent Teacher Association to launch a Healthy Habits Campaign.

The campaign – aimed at reducing illness among schoolchildren – addresses a real problem that deserves real attention. But Healthy Habits proposes a troubling solution: increasing the use of disinfecting wipes in classrooms. The announcement has sparked outrage among concerned parents and advocates.

There are better ways to keep kids healthy and kill germs in classrooms. EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunder answers questions about disinfecting wipes at school.

HCHW: How can disinfecting chemicals affect our health?

Sonya Lunder: Disinfecting wipe labels caution that the products cause skin and eye burns. This alone makes them clearly inappropriate for kids to use.

The active ingredients in wipes are called quats (“alky dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides”). These powerful disinfectant chemicals can trigger allergic reactions and asthma.

Researchers have reported that intense quat exposure can cause reproductive problems in laboratory animals, a discovery that raises questions about whether these chemicals could harm human health.

In most cases, plain soap and water are sufficient for healthy cleaning. When is the right time to use disinfecting wipes?

SL: Check the label: disinfecting wipes are meant to kill viruses and bacteria that cause disease. They’re unnecessary for everyday classroom clean-up.

They are meant for small surfaces. Twice I’ve seen my kids’ teachers give wipes to children to clean their desks, but they’re ineffective for this purpose. You’d need to use several wipes to make a desk “visibly wet” – a requirement for disinfection.

The best – and really, only – time to use disinfecting wipes in a school is to clean small items like doorknobs or electronics when there is a serious risk of transmitting germ-causing disease. In those cases, disinfecting wipes that use hydrogen peroxide or citric acid instead of quats are the safest choice.

What are good alternatives for disinfecting wipes?

SL: Schools (and students) should use water and plain soap or a concentrated, green all-purpose cleaner for removing dirt in the classroom. Wet microfiber cloths alone can reduce bacteria and viruses on hard surfaces.

When disinfecting is necessary – for instance, cleaning up blood or body fluids – it should be done by trained adults using EPA-certified products.

People who clean classrooms should be taught when and how to disinfect surfaces where serious disease concerns exist. A helpful first step is setting a school policy that specifies when and how to disinfect. CDC offers this advice on combating contagious diseases like the flu at school. 

What’s your advice to parents who want to talk to a school or teacher about disinfecting wipes in the classroom?

SL: Speak up! I’ve successfully convinced two of my kids’ teachers to stop using wipes in the classroom. I use a simple message: 1) wipes contain harsh chemicals, 2) they don’t actually disinfect large surfaces like desks, and 3) soap and water will be safer and more effective for everyday use.

In both cases, the teachers were quick to change their practices after they learned about these issues. But as long as disinfecting wipes remain a part of the school’s classroom supply lists, I’ll keep repeating this same conversation.

If you want to think big, encourage your school to draft a green cleaning plan that minimizes the use of harsh products and disinfecting chemicals. A good resource I recommend for teachers and administrators is the Cleaning for Asthma-Safe Schools project, which gives guidelines for safer cleaning and finding greener products.