The Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing & Disinfecting

Cleaning is not sanitizing. Sanitizing is not disinfecting. Although the terms are often used synonymously, there is a significant difference among the three.

Let’s start with the dictionary definitions:

  • CLEANING – to make something free of dirt, dust, marks or filth, especially by washing, wiping or brushing.
  • CLEANING PRODUCTS – products used for the routine cleaning of an indoor built environment. They include, but are not limited to, glass cleaners, general-purpose cleaners, floor cleaners, laundry detergents, dishwashing detergents, deodorizers, hand soaps and wax strippers.
  • SANITIZING – to make something clean and healthy, especially by killing bacteria.
  • SANITIZER – an anti-miocrobial agent that kills or renders inactive 99.9% of all known bacteria, viruses and fungi that are present on a surface.
  • DISINFECTING – to clean something so as to destroy disease-carrying microorganisms, pathogens and bacteria and thus prevent infection.
  • DISINFECTANT – an agent that destroys, neutralizes or inhibits the growth of disease-carrying microorganisms. Descriptions of products of this type include the suffix “cide”, meaning to “kill” e.g., bactericide, fungicide, virucide.

Cleaning with general cleaners remove dirt and debris from a surface and make things look shiny and clean but they are not designed to remove the pathogens that can cause an illness. Sanitizers and disinfectants both reduce or remove the bacteria count on a surface, yet you need to understand their differences and to know which products to choose for which job.

Always start with cleaning, using a general-purpose cleaner. A surface should be clear of dirt and debris before sanitizing or applying a disinfectant. By itself, a general-purpose cleaner won’t kill bacteria or viruses but you should always start with this step. After the surface is properly cleaned, it’s then important to decide whether to sanitize or disinfect.

Sanitizers reduce microorganisms on a surface to a level considered safe by public health standards, which is 99.9 percent within 30 seconds. A disinfectant kills nearly 100 percent (99.999 percent) of bacteria, viruses and fungi on a surface in a 5 to 10 minute period. That difference may seem small, but remember that surfaces contain millions of pathogens, and depending on the germ, only a few particles may be necessary to spread infection.

The other important thing to consider is which particular viruses, molds, bacteria or fungi a disinfectant is effective against. This information is included on the labels of disinfectants. Another important factor in their effectiveness is making sure you follow the instructions exactly as listed on the container. Altering or changing these in any way, can reduce the effectiveness of the disinfectant.

In a majority of instances, if a surface is truly clean, you only need to disinfect high-touch or high-germ exposure areas, unless you are in a healthcare or hospital setting. In such settings, it’s vital to disinfect in critical areas where there are bodily fluids or blood present, or in areas where certain medical procedures can lead to a higher risk of infection. As a rule of thumb, those in the Jan/Sab industry can apply a general-purpose cleaner 95 percent of the time, and utilize a disinfectant on high-touch surfaces and restroom floors.

Mopping a lobby floor does not require a disinfectant, while cleaning bathrooms, especially where there might be E. coli, excrement or urine on the floor, does require the use of a disinfectant. But even in those area, a general-purpose cleaner must be used first to remove dirt and debris as disinfecting sprays are not meant for that initial cleaning.

There are some areas where using a sanitizer to kill the majority of germs is adequate. For instance, in the foodservice industry, sanitizers are sufficient to clean dishes and utensils, as well as tables and surfaces in a restaurant. The sanitizer kills germs effectively and quickly so that surfaces and tableware are ready for repeated use.

Where building occupants are more vulnerable to germs, there will be a greater need for disinfecting, such as in healthcare or education settings. At the same time, those servicing office buildings will still find it useful to disinfect high-touch surfaces, such as elevator buttons, door handles and toilet flush handles. Disinfectants are also recommended in areas where occupants come in direct contact with a surface, such as a shower floor in a gym, where athlete’s foot might be a concern.

Initially, it might be wise to employ a broad-spectrum disinfectant, which has kill claims against many things and isn’t quite as strong. However, if there is an outbreak of a specific infection or virus, such as Norovirus, cleaning staff can upgrade to a product aimed at killing that exact bacteria or virus. It may also be wise to switch products regularly to ensure that harmful bacteria don’t develop a resistance to the product you are using.

When it comes to sanitizing and disinfecting, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Find out about the products you are using and use the ones aimed at handling your specific needs.
  • Always adhere to the instructions given and use disinfectants exactly as the instructions state.
  • Always mix a product exactly per instructions or they won’t kill properly and this can impact the health of those in the area.
  • Use the proper personal protective equipment to prevent potentially dangerous chemicals from entering your eyes or being absorbed through your skin.

As an added note, you should try Clorox Healthcare Fuzion Cleaner Disinfectant which utilizes a revolutionary technology that delivers fast kill times on viruses, bacteria and fungi. This product combines the trusted efficacy of bleach with excellent surface compatibility and low odor. It has the ability to kill 36 microorganisms in 2 minutes or less and has a two minute kill time on C. difficile spores and a one minute kill time on viruses, bacteria (including TB) and fungi. Fuzion also eliminates the chemical reaction that can damage surfaces and leave a residue.