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Another cosmetic ingredient to be afraid of

Lindsay’s looking for information:

What is quaternium/polyquaternium? If you have allergic contact dermatitis to quaternium-15 should you avoid contact with any other poly/quaternium numbers?

The Left Brain helps her out:

Quaternium and Polyquaternium (or “Quats” for short) are the names of CATEGORIES of chemicals. There are many different chemicals in each category. For example, there’s Quaternium 15, 18, 24, 27, 80 and Polyquaternium-6, 7, 10, 11, and 28 to name a few.

Quat doesn’t mean squat

Unfortunately, the name doesn’t really tell you anything about the chemical itself. The actual chemical name of Quaternium 15 is Methenamine 3-chloroallylochloride but it’s also known as 3,5,7-Triaza-1-azoniatricyclo(,7)decane, 1-(3-chloro-2-propenyl)-, chloride; N-(3-Chloroallyl)hexaminium chloride; and Hexamethylenetetramine chloroallyl chloride. You can see why we call it “Quaternium-15” for short!

Anyway, this particular quat is a preservative – it keeps bugs from growing in your cosmetics. It works by releasing formaldehyde, which probably explains your reaction to it. Other quats may have similar names, but that doesn’t mean they will react with your skin the same way. For example, Quaternium-18 is a long chain fatty conditioning agent and Quaternium-80 is a silicone based conditioner. The chemistry of these Quats is completely different from number 15.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

Not all Quats are created equal. Stay away from Quat-15 if you know it gives you problems but that doesn’t mean you have to shy away from the rest. I assume you’re not the only person with this question and it will be interesting to see if any companies begin offering “Quat-free” products. But so far, the “naturals” crowd don’t seem too worried about Quats. Jason Natural Cosmetics, for example, are pretty picky about their ingredients and they have an Apple and Green Tea shampoo that contains polyquats.

By the way, if you’re not sure if you have contact dermatitis or not, read our previous post on how to tell the difference between skin allergies and skin irritation.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Beth Bee January 19, 2015, 9:08 pm

    Thank you for this! I was recently diagnosed with an allergy to Quaternium-15 that’s pretty severe. When I was looking at some conditioners, I kept seeing Quaternium-80 and didn’t know if it would be safe! My allergist was qclosed all weekend, so I thought I’d give google a try before calling he next week, and I stumbled upon your site. I still plan on calling my allergist to confirm, but you saved me a lot of anxiety!

  • Cecilia May 29, 2015, 11:15 pm

    My 13 year old daughter has been using j&j baby shampoo since she was a baby. It has polyquaternium 10, it this ingredient bad? Thanks.

    • Randy Schueller May 30, 2015, 12:17 pm

      I’m not aware of any safety concerns about Polyquaternium 10.

    • Jack VanImpe March 8, 2016, 5:26 pm

      Actually, Polyquaternium-10 has just been categorized as a possible carcinogen by the CDC.

      • Randy Schueller March 9, 2016, 8:25 am

        Hi Jack. Do you have a link to document your statement that the CDC categorizes PQ-10 as carcinogenic? I don’t believe that’s true and if there’s new info available I’d like to see it.

      • pannerin March 27, 2016, 3:10 am

        Quat 10 was in Bausch and Lomb ReNu with MoistureLoc lens solution. Most users contracting contact lens keratitis in 2 East Asian countries used this solution. CDC did not investigate, but provided support by giving access to confidential patient data in these countries.

        The conclusion was that evaporation from open containers reduced disinfective ability, and that polymer film leftover from evaporation or residue buildup supported proliferation of the bacteria. This information was from the roundtable discussion at Contact Lens Spectrum, clspectrum.com Therefore, Quat 10 has not been shown unsafe here. In fact, the fearmongering EWG gives it a relatively harmless 3 rating.

        The Quat that hit the New York Times was Quat 15, taken out from the iconic Johnson’s and Johnson’s No More Tears baby shampoo. It is a run-of-the-mill formaldehyde donor, which have become increasingly unpopular despite being safe for use at recommended concentrations for the vast majority of users, especially in rinse-off products.

        Plenty of common natural foods that you eat in a meal carry more formaldehyde that is released and present in a pump of shampoo. An allergy is another issue altogether.

  • BOBBI June 10, 2015, 4:27 pm



    • Randy Schueller June 10, 2015, 5:08 pm

      Look for non-conditioning shampoos. I think Suave has some products without PQ. How do you know that’s the ingredient that makes you itch?

      • Amina Rajput April 25, 2017, 3:12 pm

        Tiza Skincare has a non conditioning Organic Shampoo/BodyWash without Quaternium 15! tizaskincare.com

    • Kelly Bonnaci April 1, 2017, 1:27 pm

      100% Pure

    • christina March 1, 2019, 8:40 am

      bj’s wholesale doesnt have any in their shampoo and works well

  • Jodi Williams July 31, 2015, 2:04 pm

    I’ve recently been diagnosed with an allergy to Quaternium-15. I’m a little overwhelmed at how to go about checking ingredients in everything I put on my body. Do you know of a reliable database that could help? Some of what I use comes from Target, etc., but a lot of what I use comes from online sources, beauty stores, etc. I’m not having great luck searching for specific brands and their ingredients, which I find strange. I’d greatly appreciate any help you can offer!

    • Randy Schueller July 31, 2015, 4:11 pm

      Hi Jodi. I’m sorry to hear about your allergy. There’s no single data base that will tell you every product that uses a specific ingredient like Quaternium-15. You’ll have to look at each one on a case by case basis. For any product that you buy at Target you can just look at the label and look for it. Online is a little tougher because not all companies list ingredients on their websites. I found that websites like drugstore.com and Walgreens.com are very good for looking up ingredients for products. Good luck!

      • Lisa clarey January 24, 2017, 1:15 pm

        Hi I have fine hair that tangles really badly. I have bin using conditioner with quants in as I feel it detangles but reading ur site I have bin struggling with dry scalp and scabs will this b the cause and if yes wot can I use. Help.

  • Michelle September 4, 2015, 9:15 am

    I have recently had a skin test confirming that I am allergic to Quaternium-15. My contact lens solution contains polyquaternium-1. Should I stay away from that contact lens solution?

    • Randy Schueller September 4, 2015, 3:51 pm

      Polyquaternium-1 is not the same thing as Quaternium-15. (Of course it’s always possible that you’re allergic to both…)

      • Michelle September 5, 2015, 4:43 pm

        Thank you!

  • Heather February 9, 2016, 1:52 pm

    Do you know if polyquaternium 7 is a formaldehyde releaser? I am allergic to quaternium 15, formaldehyde, and all formaldehyde releasers (that’s all I got- not real helpful when looking at labels.)

    • Randy Schueller February 9, 2016, 4:27 pm

      No, it’s a completely different chemical even though the name is similar.

      • Kate December 21, 2018, 4:19 am

        Perry, thank you I was wondering about Quat-7 too. See when I was a kid, I read a scince article on how the Industry uses names like Thimerisol instead of Mercury in lens solution and other products, because using the honest name of Mercury would be too honest and spook every sane customer from buying the product. And same paper mentioned Quaternium is Industry trick term for FORMALDEHYDE. So anytime I saw any variation on term Quaternium, I abandoned making a purchase as I assumed it was the Industry being Tricky for Formaldehyde.

        So today I saw a Vegan all Natural Shampoo of high quality, and I was about to go sour on it as It said Polyqaternium-7, and I was gonna call them to scold them for “How dare you sell all Natural good products, yet they aren’t good they have Quaternium in them which is Formaldehyde”. But I will skip that as you made it clear, this is not formaldehyde, not even a distant relative of formaldehyde- right??!!

        • Perry Romanowski January 21, 2019, 9:15 pm

          correct. Polyquat-7 is not related to formaldehyde

          • Min February 1, 2020, 5:34 am

            Other google searches say Polyquanternium-7 is a formalderhyde so what do we believe as I have been tested as formalderhyde intolorent

          • Perry Romanowski February 18, 2020, 8:08 am

            Keep searching. Anyone can write anything about anything on the Internet. I know Polyquaternium-7 is not a formaldehyde donor. Just look at the molecular structure. However, if you’re afraid of ingredients then avoid them.

  • Melody Albreski April 10, 2016, 11:56 am

    I was diagnosed originally to a severe reaction to Quarternium -13 after I had my first son. It was in all the baby products at that time and many other products. I have found over the years, that I react just as severely to all the others, including the Polyquarterniums. It makes it quite challenging to find products that don’t cause a severe reaction, which has gotten more violent as time goes on. The other challenge, manufacturers are not required by the FDA to list all the ingredients so sometimes its trial by error.

    • Randy Schueller April 10, 2016, 12:50 pm

      Are you talking about silicone quaternium-13? BTW, all the quaterniums have very different chemistry so it would be VERY strange for you to react to them all. How do you know that’s the cause of your problem. Also, as far as I know, these ingredients all have to be listed according to labeling laws.

  • Evelyn Garcia April 11, 2016, 8:43 pm

    I did find several products with no quaternium in them, using them 10 years now, no more allergies or rash or asthma

  • Sandy new June 16, 2016, 4:10 pm

    I’m also allergic yo quat 15, formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers. Also all the cortisone creams. I’m desperately searching for sunscreen that is safe. Any recommendations? Also suffer from PMLE.

    • Sandy June 13, 2017, 10:10 am

      I to am allergic to all that you are along with PMLE. I found a product called Shirudo that’s formulated especially for PMLE. It saved my vacation last year. Look them up. You use it first, let dry, then apply your sunscreen. Good luck!

  • Michele September 28, 2016, 1:49 pm

    Thanks so much for helping to clear up some confusion over the quaternium-15 versus quaternium-##. It seemed to me that they should be very different chemicals. After trying to rid our family of Q-15, I did find a reliable source of products. It takes a lot of reading but once I knew what to look for … THANKS for the great info!

  • Kate October 11, 2016, 9:56 am

    I am allergic to quaternium-15 and just recently began using Equate(Wal-Mart) cleansing face towelettes and suddenly broke out to a similar rash from the -15! The ingredients listed polyquaternium-7 and I’m assuming it also must be a formaldehyde releasing agent.

    • Randy Schueller October 11, 2016, 5:54 pm

      No, polyquat 7 is a completely different chemical. Only the name is similar.

      • Angela January 22, 2017, 9:45 pm

        Thank you for all of your input and research into this forum’s topic. It’s very useful. I know you’ve established Quat15 is different from PolyQuats but I’ve found that over the past 10 years products w PolyQuats have given me similar skin problems. When I avoid all of the above, I’m relatively break-out free. As soon as I dabble in PolyQuats I’m swelling, itching and it’s a long road to recovery from there. I don’t see many Quat-15 products these days. That’s a good thing!

  • Lotta October 24, 2016, 4:36 am

    What about quaternium-95?

  • RT December 10, 2016, 2:27 pm

    Thank you so much for this info. I too have recently been diagnosed with Q15 and formaldehyde allergies, and all the poly-Q variants were starting to give me angst since most of the hair care/skin care products I found at my Target had either a poly-Q something, or MI/MCI (which I’m also allergic to).

    • Tina Havenaar January 10, 2019, 10:15 pm

      I am going crazy with dry scalp and welts and other oddities and it seems related to any products with any quartz. I need to find a solution. I am at my wits end!!

  • Oscar March 14, 2017, 4:36 pm

    are these safe ?
    Aqua, Coco-Glucoside, Sodium Lauroamphoacetate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Citric Acid, Chamomilla Recutita Flower Extract, Bisabolol, Polysorbate 20, PEG-80 Sorbitan Laurate, Propylene Glycol, Butylene Glycol, PEG-150 Distearate, Sodium Chloride, Polyquaternium-10, Glucose, Sodium Benzoate, Parfum, CI 15985, CI 47005.

    • Randy Schueller March 15, 2017, 8:30 am

      Anything can be unsafe if misused but these are all fairly standard ingredients that are currently allowed in cosmetics.

  • Kim March 22, 2017, 9:36 pm

    Thank you for providing this information! I was diagnosed 27 years ago with allergies to Quat-15, Imidiazolydin Urea and all fromaldehyde derivative products. It has gotten somewhat easier over the years as I see less of Quat 15. Cosmetics are still challenging and some hair products cause me to react. I just bought a conditioner with Polyquat 10 so I’m going to give it a try now that I read your posts. It’s really nice to know I’m not alone with these allergies! I’ve been hearing talk about parabens. Are they a concern?

  • Jacki Tanaka April 1, 2017, 9:51 am

    I am currently using a product that contains all of the ingredients that are used in the J&J baby shampoo, except Q15. Is this safe to use on my babies? Listed are also ingredients such as PEG-80 Sorbitan Laurate, Tetrasodium EDTA, PEG-150 Distearate, Sodium Trideceth Sulfate, and Butylphenyl Methylpropional. I have been reading about 1,4 Dioxane and am not sure if this is a product that may be contaminated with it.

    • Randy Schueller April 2, 2017, 9:22 am

      If you’re buying shampoo from a major brand (like J&J) then you don’t have to worry about dioxane.

  • Tina miller September 17, 2017, 10:53 pm

    My son tested positive for allergy to propylene glycol and formaldehyde. Which cleansers would be safe and free from these chemicals? Do other chemicals act as formaldehyde releases that we should also avoid?

  • Joyce Phillips October 15, 2017, 8:23 pm

    I have suffered for years with atopic dermatitis of the hands. Years ago a scratch test reveled I was reacting to mutiple FD&C colors/numbers. I gave up on trying to watch every single product I used. With babies at the time it was almost impossible. I had a doctor at one point tell me to avoid getting my hands wet period. Yea right, didn’t happen. Recently I re-visited a dermatologist and had another scratch test done. This time the red flag was Quantarum-15. I see now why my hands would crack, blister and bleed after bathing my babies. Back then Quantarum-15 was in every baby product. Quay-15 is also found in paper. It is used in the process. I work all day with paper. Last Christmas before seeing the dermo my finger tips were cracked and bleeding from the wrapping paper. Cortisone shots are a life saver but can’t be given as often as I need them. I recently discovered something that is truly helping. After contact with products that irritate my hands I immediately rinse and wash them with listerine. I know sounds crazy right? Just give it a try. My doc couldn’t believe how well my hands looked at my last appointment and was thrilled we could skip the cortisone shot. Let me know if any of you sufferers find relief. I sure did.

    • Alison Christie February 6, 2018, 2:26 pm

      I had also suffered from dermatitis from early childhood before being diagnosed as allergic to formaldehyde, cinnamon and lanolin. I found Aveeno body wash ( not the new moisturising one) and intensive moisturiser to be excellent. I use both every day and my skin is much stronger and copes with much more than before. It is so nice to have soft hands and very few hacks or dry patches. Hope you have found something that works for you.

  • Linnea December 7, 2017, 12:32 pm

    Randy, I don’t who you are….are you a doctor, scientist, researcher, or just someone who likes to disagree with what people who have had reactions all their lives from certain types of ingredients in products they’ve used? Making comments like, and I quote: “Anything can be unsafe if misused but these are all fairly standard ingredients that are currently allowed in cosmetics” is patently not true. MANY ingredients are ALLOWED in products which are NOT safe. Case in point: The FDA allows additives to our foods which are known to be unsafe….yet they still ALLOW it. The same goes for cosmetics, shampoos, conditioners, etc. It seems you have a disagreeable, snide attitude that is easily picked up in your answers. Might want to reconsider how you come across.

  • Ana December 27, 2017, 4:05 pm

    Hi! Is Quaternium-18 like a silicone? I’m afraid it will cause buildup.

    • Perry Romanowski January 9, 2018, 10:54 am

      No. Quaternium 18 is a preservative. It will not build up.

    • Nanette March 28, 2019, 9:41 am

      Hi RT,
      I’ve noticed that we’ve got the same allergy, MI, Quaternium 15 and formaldehyde. Have you find products free from those ingredients? If so please send the products. Thanks . Nanette

  • Charlene February 13, 2018, 1:47 am

    Hi, this info has been so helpful! I was wondering if you could answer a question?
    Is Benzalkonium the same as Quaternium -15?
    I have an allergy to this and see Disteardimonium Hectorite in practically every cosmetic and was wondering if they are all the same?

    • Perry Romanowski April 3, 2018, 8:58 am

      No, Benzalkonium and Quaternium-15 are not the same.

  • Lucia March 4, 2018, 5:43 am

    I had a terrible case of contact dermatitis for the first time in my life after use of Qauternium-91 in a product called Olaplex at the hair salon. Turned out also my Pureology shampoo which never had Quaternium in it, was taken over by PG and they started putting some polyquaternium-10 in it and I did react to it each time I used that new formula shampoo. So how do you know it is not all quats and poly-quats? Are there any softening chemicals in hairproducts that will not affect people that are allergic to Quaternium-15 and formaldehyde, like myself. If quaternium-15 is built up from different chemicals, is there a database where we can see all the build chemicals in all the quats?

    • Perry Romanowski April 3, 2018, 7:52 am

      P&G did not take over Pureology. L’Oreal owns Pureology. Quaternium and Polyquaternium are not the same thing. Being allergic to Quaternium-15 says nothing about whether you’ll be allergic to any other Quaternium. The only way you can know is to test the products (on a blind basis) on yourself.

  • Donna March 8, 2018, 4:13 pm

    I understand that Quaternium-15 is toxic. Is Quaternium-15 toxic or a skin irritant? I have seen it listed on a new hair conditioner that is supposed to be for sensitive skin.

    • Perry Romanowski March 12, 2018, 2:22 pm

      No, Quaternium-15 is not toxic as used in cosmetics. It is a preservative that is safe for use in cosmetics.

  • Lavonia April 24, 2018, 11:05 am

    After years of suffering with skin rashes and split, bleeding and painful fingers, I finally found a doctor that did a skin test showing I was allergic to Ouaternium-15, Diazolidinyl Urea, DMDM Hydation and other chemicles in cosmetics which are all formaldehyde releasers. I have to read all labels since they do hide them in ingredients lists. I’m not sure about the other Quats and Poly-Quats so I just avoid all of them. It seems the less expensive products do not contain these chemicals whereas more expensive products do. I’m sorry for all who suffer from this, just didn’t realize there were so many. I just don’t understand how FDA can allow so many dangerous chemicals in so many products.

    • Perry Romanowski June 15, 2019, 12:08 pm

      Ingredient lists exist to inform people who might be allergic to ingredients. Everyone is allergic to something so there wouldn’t be any cosmetics if ingredients to which people were allergic were banned. Quaterniums and Polyquaterniums are not the same so you do not have to avoid them in general. Only Quaternium-15 is a formaldehyde releaser.

  • Margi May 22, 2018, 6:31 am

    Omg ! I feel for you Randy ! How many times did you state that Quat and polyquats are not all the same ? Do people read anymore ? It’s must be hard being a scientist in this day and age of internet fear mongering, let alone try to help people and put true information out there only to put down and critized by Linnea ! Keep fighting the good fight !

  • nogs October 27, 2018, 10:46 am

    1. Is Polyquaternium 10 is OK ?
    2. if Polyquaternium 10 , in what it is differ from quaternium-15 , that is bad ?
    Is Polyquaternium 10 don’t release formaldehyde ?

    • Perry Romanowski June 15, 2019, 12:58 pm

      Yes Polyquaternium-10 is ok. No it doesn’t release formaldehyde. It is a completely different molecule.

  • Christina March 1, 2019, 8:41 am

    Is quartanium and polyquartanium of equal or lesser strengths? for example i know i am allergic to quartanium so how risky are things that contain polyquartanium?

    • Perry Romanowski March 1, 2019, 6:07 pm

      No, Quaternium and Polyquaternium are not the same molecule. The only similarity they have is a free nitrogen molecule. They can be as different as sugar and salt.

  • Kristin May 11, 2019, 10:10 pm

    Hi I recently got a new kitten and after I gave him a bath I noticed my skin crawling around him. Looked in his shampoo and saw it had quartanium in it do you think its possible I have a allergy to this and that’s why I’m itching b.c before that I had no problems.

    • Perry Romanowski May 13, 2019, 2:43 pm

      It’s possible but “quaternium” is not a single ingredient. There are dozens of different chemicals called “Quaternium” and it’s unlike you are allergic to all of them. More likely you are allergic to the cat.

  • Isha December 1, 2019, 4:24 pm

    Hollywood keratin used seems to have a product which is producing formaldehyde.
    I have had a very bad reaction from it and have been vomiting from 5pm till now ( 22.24).
    Please confirm.

    • Perry Romanowski December 3, 2019, 9:25 pm

      I have no idea but you should probably see a doctor.

  • Louisena Caudio February 4, 2020, 2:23 am

    Hello my name is Louisena Caudio. I’m the owner of Sereme LLC. I would like to know how to manufacturing my lotion recipes. I would like to hire a chemist to help me to make sure the products are safe. I would like to know what is the state of Florida required location and square feet. I would like to know if 1000 square feet of a shopping center is big enough to start a small manufacturing company. How it’s cost to hire a production chemist in Jacksonville Florida.
    I’m from Haiti. I have been working as a CNA for 20 years night shifts, my body is tired. I can’t find a good manufacturer they are so expensive and they want to use sheep ingredients. I want to create great products to help people. Thank you so much.

  • Trish April 19, 2020, 4:39 pm

    I’ve started using a shampoo that lists polyquaternium-73 in the ingredients. I got a second bottle of what I thought was the exact same product but it lists polyquaternium-80. What’s the deal between the two?

    • Perry Romanowski April 21, 2020, 9:06 am

      Polyquaternium 73 is an anti-stat film former while Polyquaternium-80 is a conditioning ingredient. So the 73 is meant to prevent frizz while the 80 is meant to moisturize. In truth, the 73 is not very effective when delivered from a shampoo.

  • H. July 15, 2020, 11:58 am

    Are there really any hair products that don’t contain unsafe and potentially unsafe chemicals and the company that makes them doesn’t test on animals both themselves and any of it’s family companies? I’m not really much of activist or anything, but I do care about what I use, and some forms of animal welfare. I feel like throwing my hands up that I really can’t get seem to get away from any of it in any product. I was looking for other names that Formaldehyde might go by that might be in a hair product I’d like to able to use and came across a swath of information and precautions. It was overwhelming. I kind of don’t know what to think. Even food can contain formaldehyde apparently… Is prolonged use of a hair product containing Formaldehyde or other Formaldehyde releasing chemicals a cause for concern? What about if you have pets? Do the chemicals get released in the air somehow? Also, what is genotoxicity or genotoxicity. I’m not sure how it’s spelled…