Cleaning, Sanitizing, Disinfecting – What’s the Difference?

Man using a spray bottle and rag to clean a table in a restaurant.
Reduce the number of germs with regular cleaning and sanitization.

There’s a lot of confusion around the terms cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting to the point where they’re often used interchangeably. Your idea of cleaning, for example, may differ from a neighbor’s or family member’s, causing misconceptions that can lead to poor hygiene practices and even give germs a free pass to survive in places thought to be clean. Whether it’s your home or business, you expect the places you live and work in to be hygienic and germ-free. So which of these methods are necessary to get rid of the most germs without having to rely on constantly wiping down every last surface?

Cleaning Removes Dirt

Cleaning is the act of removing visible dirt, dust and grime from soiled surfaces with water and soap or detergent. Wiping down surfaces with soapy sponges and warm water removes visible debris and can help to kill some, but not all harmful viruses and bacteria. This kind of surface cleaning is an important step to take before using any other disinfectants, because dirt can react with some products and render their germ-killing power less effective.

High-touch surface cleaning, hand-washing and sweeping and mopping are all critical in stopping the spread of germs and should be done daily to help keep your spaces clean. While cleaning may not kill all germs living on any given surface, it will lower their numbers and help to reduce some of the risk of spreading harmful pathogens.

Disinfect to Kill Germs

Disinfecting is the use of antimicrobial agents to kill or deactivate microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi. Disinfectants generally kill more germs than sanitizers, but their effect is temporary—as soon as the disinfected surface is re-contaminated, it can become a breeding ground for infectious pathogens once again.

Close up shot of hands in gloves spraying a surface with bottle of sanitizer and wiping it with a rag.
Regular disinfection and sanitization will establish a strong defense against the spread of germs.

Alcohol, chlorine and quaternary ammonium compounds are disinfectants found in many widely used household and commercial cleaning products, but not all disinfectants can be used interchangeably—incorrect concentrations and products can result in inefficacy, excessive costs or even harm to those exposed. Always be sure to check your labels to see if you’re using the right product for your space.

Sanitize to Stop Germ Spread

Sanitizing is the use of a chemical product or device (like a dishwasher or a steam mop) that reduces the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a level considered safe by public health standards or requirements. Sanitizing kills most germs but not all of them. Sanitization is especially important in food preparation, where a sanitizer should reduce the number of germs by 99.999% in 30 seconds, per CDC guidelines.

Methods for sanitization include high heat, steam, ozone gas, chemical solutions, fogging and electrostatic spray. Most of these methods can be implemented by a commercial cleaning service on a monthly or weekly basis, so all you have to do is schedule an appointment. Some companies even offer free bioactivity testing as a way to measure the effectiveness of your chosen sanitization strategy.

Should You Clean, Disinfect or Sanitize?

Maintaining a clean and sanitary environment is one of the most important ways in which you can reduce the risk of spreading germs that can make you sick. Cleaning helps maintain order and reduces the growth of potentially harmful organisms, while regular disinfection and sanitization will establish a strong defense against the spread of germs.

Tips for Proper Cleaning, Sanitizing and Disinfecting

  1. Routine cleaning – Dust, sweep and mop at the end of each day. Spot clean regularly. Keep your space free from clutter and debris.

  2. Disinfect Common Areas – Add disinfectants to your regular cleaning routine to kill germs in your environment. Disinfect high-touch surfaces regularly.

  3. Stay Sanitary – Research what methods sanitization companies in your area use to eliminate germs. They can be a wealth of knowledge for helping keep your space safe from germs and diseases.

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