Bacterial resistance to disinfectants: present knowledge and future problems

J Hosp Infect. 1999 Dec;43 Suppl:S57-68. doi: 10.1016/s0195-6701(99)90066-x.


Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a long-established, widely-studied problem. Increasingly, attention is being directed to the responses of various types of microbes to biocides (antiseptics, disinfectants and preservatives). Different groups of bacteria vary in their susceptibility to biocides, with bacterial spores being the most resistant, followed by mycobacteria, then Gram-negative organisms, with cocci generally being the most sensitive. There are wide divergencies within this general classification. Thus, (i) spores of Bacillus subtilis are less susceptible to biocides than those of Clostridium difficile: (ii) Mycobacterium chelonae strains may show high resistance to glutaraldehyde and M. avium intracellulare is generally less sensitive than M. tuberculosis; (iii) Gram-negative bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Providencia spp and Proteus spp may be difficult to inactivate; (iv) enterococci are less sensitive than staphylococci to biocides and antibiotic-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus might show low-level biocide resistance. The mechanisms involved in biocide resistance to biocides are becoming better understood. Intrinsic resistance (intrinsic insusceptibility) is found with bacterial spores, mycobacteria and Gram-negative bacteria. This resistance might, in some instances, be associated with constitutive degradative enzymes but in reality is more closely linked to cellular impermeability. The coats(s) and, to some extent, the cortex in spores, the arabinogalactan and possibly other components of the mycobacterial cell wall and the outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria limit the concentration of active biocide that can reach the target site(s) in these bacterial cells. A special situation is found with bacteria present in biofilms, which can be considered as being an intrinsic resistance mechanism resulting from physiological (phenotypic) adaptation of cells. Acquired resistance to biocides may arise by cellular mutation or by the acquisition of genetic elements. Plasmid/transposon-mediated resistance to inorganic and organic mercury compounds by hydrolases and reductases has been extensively studied. Plasmid-mediated resistance to some other biocides in Gram-negative bacteria and in staphylococci has been described, but its significance remains uncertain. As to the future, there is a need to establish conclusively whether there is a clear-cut linkage between antibiotic and biocide resistance in non-sporulating bacteria and whether biocides can select for antibiotic resistance. Additionally, the responses to biocides of new and emerging pathogens must be assessed. At the same time, continuing research is necessary to establish further the underlying mechanisms of resistance and to provide more efficient means of bacterial inactivation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / drug effects
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Disinfectants / pharmacology*
  • Drug Resistance, Microbial*
  • Forecasting
  • Phenotype


  • Disinfectants