Disinfecting agents as a source of antibiotic cross-resistance

SynCell News • February 28, 2021

Would you imagine that hand sanitizers’ widespread use during the COVID-19 pandemic might trigger an unwanted and unprecedented resistance to the disinfectants?

No need to imagine because it is happening.

Bacterial pathogens are considered a hidden pandemic that successfully lurks behind others. As it would be expected, they are doing it again, armed with a wide array of defense mechanisms to fight whatever threat they find in their way. Now: disinfectant components in hand sanitizers.

It is well-known that bacteria can quickly develop resistance to disinfectant agents in a similar way that they do to antibiotics. When doing so, this behavior led to cross-resistance, which allows the microorganisms to defend themselves against antibiotics by just being exposed to non-lethal doses of disinfectant agents.

Many disinfecting active molecules -some of them associated to commonly used hand sanitizers- led bacteria to develop environmental stress, which triggers a selective pressure that ends with bacterium overexpressing defense mechanisms in its membrane associated with antibiotic resistance.

Bacteria can quickly develop resistance to disinfectant agents in a similar way that they do to antibiotics.

As such, opportunistic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus can easily make proteins that pump many toxic chemicals out of the cell to interfere with their antibacterial effects. Once fully developed and transmitted to different generations of the bacteria, these efflux pumps can remove antibiotics from the cell and have been shown to make bacteria resistant to drugs.

Therefore, low levels of many disinfecting agents can make the potentially lethal bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, among many others, remove toxic chemicals from the cell even more efficiently, potentially making it resistant to being killed by some widely used antibiotics.

In the end, the poor quality or the suboptimal use of some disinfectants might suppose another trigger that pushes humanity a bit further into the unknown future that the post-antibiotic era is preparing for us, a situation in which we will need to be prepared to face the biggest challenges of our time.