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Cleaning wipes are a common find in households. They are used to clean multiple types of hard surfaces such as stainless steel, countertops, glass, and wooden furniture. These wipes consist of pre-moistened fabric towelettes that contain disinfectants. Wipes may also contain perfumes, preservatives, and other substances. The wipes are conveniently packaged in small plastic containers that have a lid through which the wipe is removed. Each wipe contains a fixed amount of disinfectant, reducing the potential for human error that could occur if individuals mixed and diluted the disinfectant themselves.
Kitchen disinfecting wipes (including Clorox® and Lysol® disinfecting wipes) are the type of wipe exposure most often called in to Poison Control. These wipes are mostly water but also contain detergents, antimicrobials, and other components to boost their effectiveness. The names of the detergents in these products can sound dangerous. For example: many common household disinfecting wipes contain alkyl dimethylbenzyl ammonium chloride or alkyl dimethylethylbenzyl ammonium chloride. These components are cationic detergents that can cause chemical burns in high concentrations; however, in the wipes they are found in much lower concentrations of only 0.01-0.1%. This concentration is high enough to break apart a bacterial cell wall, just as hand soap does, but not high enough to break down human skin. Some kitchen disinfecting wipes use hydrogen peroxide, isopropyl alcohol, or ethanol in conjunction with a detergent or alone.
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Depending on the brand, ingredients can be made from natural products or manufactured. In general, the source of the ingredients (natural versus man-made) does not change the effectiveness or toxicity. Also, just because a product is labeled as being natural, does not mean that it is not potentially poisonous.
If a kitchen disinfecting wipe is put into the mouth or if some of the fluid at the bottom of the container is accidentally swallowed, mild gastrointestinal irritation, including nausea and vomiting, can occur. People who unintentionally swallow disinfecting wipe solution should first rinse their mouth out with water and then take small sips of water to clear the throat and stomach.
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Some people may develop reactions on their hands or other skin surfaces after using disinfecting wipes. Household cleaning products can often contain preservatives and fragrances which can cause allergic reactions, including rashes, after contact with human skin. Use of rubber gloves can help protect against skin contact with cleaning products, including disinfecting wipes.
To reduce the risk of unwanted adverse events when using disinfecting wipes, first consider whether the use of these products is truly necessary. When simply wiping down a surface, a baby wipe will often accomplish the same cleaning goal and does not contain additional chemicals. If there was raw food on the countertop or if someone in the household has a weakened immune system, then the use of disinfecting wipes is more reasonable.
Disinfecting wipes are intended to be used by hand and because of this, they are relatively safe when used properly. However, they are not meant to be chewed on or swallowed. Also, specialized cleaning wipes, like bathroom wipes, may be harsher on the mouth or throat than kitchen wipes. The symptoms described above—gastrointestinal irritation, including mouth or throat pain, nausea, and vomiting—might be more likely to occur.
Other surface cleaning wipes (glass, furniture, and stainless steel) are mild irritants. If a wipe is found in the mouth, rinse gently with water and offer something to drink. Furniture and stainless-steel products can contain small amounts of a hydrocarbon or oily substance. These products could cause skin irritation when handled by a child (a child’s skin is frequently more delicate than adult skin). Simply wash the skin with soap and water.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the patterns and frequency of how we disinfect our homes. Many of us are cleaning our own homes more frequently than before and are often using new or different disinfecting products. In the spring of 2020, near the start of the pandemic, poison control centers across the United States experienced an increase in calls related to human exposures to cleaning and disinfecting products. Many of these calls were related to the improper use of the disinfecting products, mixing multiple products together, and using the products in unventilated areas. In some cases, people used disinfecting products on their own skin. There were also reports of individuals who intentionally injected, inhaled, or drank disinfecting solutions. There is no evidence that these alternative uses of disinfecting products are effective in preventing or treating COVID-19 infection, and these practices can be dangerous. Disinfecting products are designed for use on hard surfaces and are not meant to be used in or on the human body. People who intentionally drink disinfecting wipe solutions or apply them to their own skin may experience unwanted and potentially dangerous side effects. It is very important to always use cleaning wipes and other disinfecting products only as directed on the package label.
Disinfecting wipes were sometimes difficult to find in stores in 2020 and 2021 because the COVID-19 pandemic caused an increased demand for these products. There are multiple “do-it-yourself” (DIY) recipes for making homemade disinfecting wipes available on the internet, and many people used these instructions to create their own cleaning wipes when the products were not readily available in stores. When making cleaning wipes at home, it is important to label containers carefully, use gloves when mixing products, and ensure that the area you’re working in is well ventilated. Remember to never mix bleach with ammonia, as this can create poisonous chloramine gas. Likewise, avoid mixing bleach with an acid as this can produce poisonous chlorine gas.
If you are worried about an exposure to cleaning wipes or other hard-surface cleaning products, get help online at f4vn.com or call 1-800-222-1222. Whether you log on or call, expert assistance is available 24 hours a day.
Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD Medical Toxicologist
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