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Keywords:

  • antimicrobials;
  • benzalkonium chloride;
  • EU regulatory classification;
  • false-positive patch tests;
  • patch testing technique;
  • surfactants

Chemicals may possess a number of hazards to human health including the ability to cause skin irritation and contact allergy. Identification and characterization of these properties should fall within predictive toxicology, but information derived from human exposure, including clinical experience, is also of importance. In this context, it is of interest to review the case of benzalkonium chloride, a cationic surfactant. This chemical is a well-known skin irritant, but on occasions it has also been reported to have allergenic properties, typically on the basis of positive diagnostic patch test data. Because the accumulated knowledge concerning the properties of a chemical is employed as the basis for its regulatory classification (e.g. in Europe), as well as for informing the clinical community with respect to the diagnosis of irritant versus allergic contact dermatitis (ACD), it is important to distinguish properly which chemicals are simply irritants from those which are both irritant and allergenic on skin. A review of the information on benzalkonium chloride confirms that it is a significant skin irritant. However, both predictive test results and clinical data lead to the conclusion that benzalkonium chloride is, at most, an extremely rare allergen, except perhaps in the eye, but with many supposed cases of ACD being likely to arise from the misinterpretation of patch test data. As a consequence, this substance should not normally be regarded as, or classified as, a significant skin sensitizer.