The drug concentration inside multidrug-resistant cells is the outcome of competition between the active export of drugs by drug efflux pumps, such as P-glycoprotein (Pgp), and the passive permeation of drugs across the plasma membrane. Thus, reversal of multidrug resistance (MDR) can occur either by inhibition of the efflux pumps or by acceleration of the drug permeation. Among the hundreds of established modulators of Pgp-mediated MDR, there are numerous surface-active agents potentially capable of accelerating drug transbilayer movement. The aim of the present study was to determine whether these agents modulate MDR by interfering with the active efflux of drugs or by allowing for accelerated passive permeation across the plasma membrane. Whereas Pluronic P85, Tween-20, Triton X-100 and Cremophor EL modulated MDR by inhibition of Pgp-mediated efflux, with no appreciable effect on transbilayer movement of drugs, the anesthetics chloroform, benzyl alcohol, diethyl ether and propofol modulated MDR by accelerating transbilayer movement of drugs, with no concomitant inhibition of Pgp-mediated efflux. At higher concentrations than those required for modulation, the anesthetics accelerated the passive permeation to such an extent that it was not possible to estimate Pgp activity. The capacity of the surface-active agents to accelerate passive drug transbilayer movement was not correlated with their fluidizing characteristics, measured as fluorescence anisotropy of 1-(4-trimethylammonium)-6-phenyl-1,3,5-hexatriene. This compound is located among the headgroups of the phospholipids and does not reflect the fluidity in the lipid core of the membranes where the limiting step of drug permeation, namely drug flip-flop, occurs.