In Vitro Evaluation of Mitochondrial Function and Estrogen Signaling in Cell Lines Exposed to the Antiseptic Cetylpyridinium Chloride

Environ Health Perspect. 2017 Aug 22;125(8):087015. doi: 10.1289/EHP1404.


Background: Quaternary ammonium salts (QUATS), such as cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC) and benzalkonium chloride (BAK), are frequently used in antiseptic formulations, including toothpastes, mouthwashes, lozenges, throat and nasal sprays, and as biocides. Although in a recent ruling, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned CPC from certain products and requested more data on BAK's efficacy and safety profile, QUATS, in general, and CPC and BAK, in particular, continue to be used in personal health care, food, and pharmaceutical and cleaning industries.

Objectives: We aimed to assess CPC's effects on mitochondrial toxicity and endocrine disruption in vitro.

Method: Mitochondrial O2 consumption and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) synthesis rates of osteosarcoma cybrid cells were measured before and after CPC and BAK treatment. Antiestrogenic effects of the compounds were measured by a luciferase-based assay using recombinant human breast carcinoma cells (VM7Luc4E2, ERalpha-positive).

Results: CPC inhibited both mitochondrial O2 consumption [half maximal inhibitory concentration (IC50): 3.8μM] and ATP synthesis (IC50: 0.9μM), and additional findings supported inhibition of mitochondrial complex 1 as the underlying mechanism for these effects. In addition, CPC showed concentration-dependent antiestrogenic activity half maximal effective concentration [(EC50): 4.5μM)]. BAK, another antimicrobial QUATS that is structurally similar to CPC, and the pesticide rotenone, a known complex 1 inhibitor, also showed mitochondrial inhibitory and antiestrogenic effects. In all three cases, there was overlap of the antiestrogenic activity with the mitochondrial inhibitory activity.

Conclusions: Mitochondrial inhibition in vitro occurred at a CPC concentration that may be relevant to human exposures. The antiestrogenic activity of CPC, BAK, rotenone, and triclosan may be related to their mitochondrial inhibitory activity. Our findings support the need for additional research on the mitochondrial inhibitory and antiestrogenic effects of QUATS, including CPC and BAK.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Infective Agents, Local / toxicity*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cetylpyridinium / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / drug effects


  • Anti-Infective Agents, Local
  • Cetylpyridinium