Background Non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) are increasingly important as opportunistic infections after major and minor surgical procedures, likely because they are ubiquitous and not effectively killed by many commonly used disinfectants. Outbreaks of soft tissue infections with NTM appeared related to the use of commercial disinfectants based on quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs). Methods We studied the survival of clinical and environmental isolates of Mycobacterium abscessus, Mycobacterium massiliense, Mycobacterium chelonae and Mycobacterium fortuitum after 20 min, 60 min or 24 h exposures to different QACs, and the surviving bacteria were then re-exposed to QACs to see if the percentage of surviving bacteria had increased. The bacteria were labelled with a dnaA–gfp fusion and their level of QAC resistance monitored as increasing fluorescence. The QAC-resistant bacteria were then serially restreaked onto non-selective medium and retested for QAC survival. Results The frequency of survivors was <1 in 105 bacteria with Mycobacterium smegmatis, but >1 in 100 with the other mycobacteria studied. Different environmental and clinical isolates had similar QAC MICs, but QAC survivors of each strain were resistant. The QAC-surviving strains reverted to the original, non-resistant phenotype after several passages on non-selective medium. Conclusions QACs should not be used in settings where even minimally invasive procedures are performed, as they select for a non-genetically determined reversible resistant phenotype that appears at high frequency with several rapidly growing mycobacterial species associated with healthcare-related infections. M. smegmatis behaves differently and is not an adequate model for testing the activity of disinfectants against NTM.