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What's the Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting?

Here are the basics you need to know about the differences between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, and why they're all necessary for keeping a healthy home.

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While many people use the terms “cleaning,” “sanitizing” and “disinfecting” interchangeably, these words carry distinct implications when they appear on household products. Now, because of an increasing urgency to fight the spread of diseases like COVID-19, it’s important to understand the terminology on your cleaning solution’s label. Here’s a quick overview:

Cleaners remove dirt

“Cleaning” involves the physical removal of dust and dirt, but doesn’t necessarily eliminate germs. Although conventional cleaning doesn’t kill germs, it does physically remove some germy dirt from surfaces, and should always be the first step in your household cleaning and disinfecting routine.

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Sanitizers can reduce bacteria

“Sanitization” decreases, but doesn’t necessarily eliminate, the amount of bacteria identified on the product’s label. Keep in mind that even EPA-approved sanitizers only carry claims for bacteria, not viruses.

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Disinfectants kill germs

“Disinfecting” can effectively eliminate bacteria and viruses as specified on a product’s label. In fact, only disinfectants are approved by the EPA to kill viruses on hard surfaces.1 That’s important, because disinfecting hard, nonporous surfaces is one of the most reliable ways to help lower the risk of spreading germs from surfaces by touch.2 

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The power of disinfection

It’s important to remember that if you don’t see the word “disinfect” or “disinfectant” on a product’s label, a solution probably isn’t EPA-registered to kill germs, or to kill viruses, the cause of cold, flu and COVID-19. 

If a member of your household has just recovered from a virus, it’s best to disinfect — not sanitize — surfaces, as EPA-approved sanitizers only have claims for bacteria, while disinfectants have claims against both bacteria and viruses. 

For easy to follow steps to post-flu cleanup, be sure to read our guide to disinfecting your home after a flu.