Updated: Feb 28
Following the Covid-19 pandemic, health organisations have been advising the public on how to best protect themselves and take care of their hygiene.
One of the most important messages from the start of the outbreak concerns proper hand washing and sanitising techniques. However, scientists are wary that the excessive use of cleaning products and hand sanitisers can lead to antimicrobial resistance in bacteria.
What is antimicrobial resistance?
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has become one of the biggest public health concerns globally. Antimicrobials (including antibiotic, antiprotozoal, antiviral, and antifungal medicines) are important to our health as they help us fight against infections. AMR occurs when bacteria and viruses mutate over time and no longer respond to medicines. This makes infections more difficult to treat and increases the likelihood of severe illness or death.
Excess microbial exposure to antibiotics and their overuse in agriculture and health facilities are one of the main drivers of AMR. At the same time, progress in developing new antibiotics has been slow, which is another reason for concern.
Dr Winston Morgan, Reader in Toxicology and Clinical Biochemistry at the University of East London, explains for The Conversation: “We usually (and correctly) associate antimicrobial resistance with the misuse of medications, such as antibiotics. Misuse could include failing to complete a course of antibiotics, or ignoring daily dose intervals. Both of these can increase the chance of the most resistant strains of bacteria in a population surviving and multiplying.”
What many people may not know is that bacteria can also acquire resistance after inappropriate or excessive use of certain chemicals, including cleaning agents and hand sanitisers. “Diluting sanitising agents, or using them intermittently and inefficiently, can provide a survival advantage to the most resistant strains. This ultimately leads to greater overall resistance,” Dr Morgan adds.
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How is it connected to Covid-19?
Recent recommendations about the best hygiene practices during the pandemic have increased our use of hand sanitisers and cleaning products for disinfection of surfaces. However, these products need to be applied responsibly and with sufficient awareness of their long-term impact on antimicrobial resistance.
If some of the common ingredients in cleaning supplies are frequently diluted or if they are applied incorrectly, bacteria can start developing resistance to them. This ultimately leads to an increase in the overall resistance of the microbial population.
So what can we do to minimise the impact of hand sanitisers on AMR?
“When using hand sanitisers and cleaning products, treat them as you would a prescription medication,” Dr Morgan advises. “Read the instructions carefully, as any deviation can render them ineffective. Avoid diluting or combining pre-prepared products with other ones. Only make homemade sanitiser and cleaning products using recipes from government sites with ingredients bought from reputable stores.”
To avoid a surge in antimicrobial resistance to new substances that are currently being developed, we should use hand sanitisers and antibiotics in a more educated and responsible way now.