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What's the Difference Between Sanitizing and Disinfecting?

Learn the basics of when to sanitize vs disinfect, how they're different from simply cleaning, and why they're all necessary for keeping a clean and healthy home.

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Many people don’t understand the difference between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting but these words carry distinct implications when they appear on household products. Now, because of an increasing urgency to fight the spread of diseases, it’s important to understand the differences from your cleaning solution’s label. Here’s a quick overview:

Cleaning removes dirt

Cleaning involves the 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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Sanitizing 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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Disinfecting kills germs

Disinfectants 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.