Chlorhexidine, an ingredient in antibacterial wipes and disinfectants, forces bacteria to genetically mutate to survive the world’s strongest antibiotic. Chlorhexidine is an ingredient in everything from skin disinfectants to deodorants, toothpaste, mouthwashes, eye rinses, and surgical soaps.
A recent study found that it causes particularly nasty bacteria, Klebsiella, to rapidly develop genetic resistance. Subsequent generations of the bacteria cannot be killed even by the world’s most powerful antibiotic, colistin. Colistin is on the World Health Organization’s list of critical drugs because it is used when no other antibiotic will work. The new study, published in a journal of the American Society for Microbiology, shows that even colistin won’t work after bacteria have been exposed to chlorhexidine disinfectant.
Chlorhexidine is in many brands of popular cleaning wipes, and in the liquid hand-cleaning dispensers in hospitals, malls, and your doctor’s offices. It suppresses the growth of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, but at the tremendous cost of promoting genetic changes that rapidly turns into antibiotic resistance.
If chlorhexidine use was limited to serious high-risk situations, such as to clean the mouth of people in intensive care units on ventilators, then it might not be so dangerous. But it is in mouthwash, disinfectant wipes, cosmetics, personal care products and more – spreading drug resistance everywhere it is used. No-rinse disinfectant dispensers and moist towelettes are especially concerning because chlorhexidine stays on the skin for long periods. In this way, the user of the product becomes the vehicle for spread of its antibiotic-resistant property.
This study follows on the heels of a new FDA ban on two other disinfectants, triclosan and triclocarban, from over-the-counter antibacterial hand and body washes. The September 2016 FDA rule says manufacturers failed to provide evidence that triclosan and triclocarban and 17 other ingredients were safe or effective.
Chlorhexidine in mouthwash has another hidden hazard. By eliminating not only the germs that cause bad breath, but wiping out good mouth bacteria too. Chlorhexidine mouthwash drastically reduces the nitrate production by those bacteria. Nitrate is a beneficial substance that causes healthy dilation of blood vessels. When chlorhexidine-containing mouthwashes are regularly used, the nitrate concentration in the mouth is less by 90%, and the blood nitrate is down by 25%. This causes increased blood pressure, raising the risk for heart attack and stroke.
Tip for the smart consumer: The American Medical Association recommends that washing with plain water and soap remains the most effective way to disinfect while not promoting antibiotic resistance. For more information, get No-Nonsense Guide To Antibiotics by Moira Dolan, MD