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

The words “clean,” “sanitize,” and “disinfect” each have specific meanings. Understanding this is important when choosing sanitizing and disinfecting products and using them correctly on surfaces.

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By Mary Gagliardi
Smells like Coconut.
Cleans like Clorox.
Smells like Coconut.
Cleans like Clorox.
Clorox Scentiva Products

Many people know generally that you sanitize or disinfect when you want to kill germs, but they don’t always know what this means or that sanitizing and disinfecting are not the same thing. Because the terms are often used interchangeably with cleaning, that only adds to the confusion. 

Sanitizer and disinfectant are terms the EPA uses to classify products with germ-kill claims based on how effective they are at destroying microorganisms. While there are a variety of ingredients that can kill germs, just having the ingredients in a product is not enough to make a germ-kill claim; the product must also be registered with the EPA and have an EPA registration number on the product label.

Now, let’s look specifically at what cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting each mean.

Cleaning removes dirt

Cleaning is a physical process that removes dirt and grime from surfaces, usually by wiping, scrubbing, laundering or vacuuming. Using a cleaning product can make removing dirt easier, but won’t necessarily eliminate germs. Cleaning is an important first step that prepares a hard, nonporous surface so a sanitizer or disinfectant product will work effectively when applied.

Sanitizing reduces germs to safe levels

A sanitizer is a product that decreases bacteria counts on surfaces to levels considered safe by public health codes or regulations. Products that make sanitizing claims must be registered with the EPA. The registration includes specific directions for use that must be followed for the product to work effectively. The registration also lists all the organisms the product is effective against when used as directed. Keep in mind that EPA-approved sanitizers only carry claims for bacteria, not viruses.

Disinfecting kills germs

Disinfection is a higher level of germ kill than sanitization. Disinfectants work by effectively killing or eliminating various bacteria and viruses from inanimate surfaces, and are also regulated by the EPA. Disinfecting hard, nonporous surfaces is one of the most reliable ways to help lower the risk of spreading germs from surfaces by touch.1

Disinfectants usually require a pre-cleaning step that removes obvious dirt before the disinfectant is applied to the surface. This is because disinfectants break down in the presence of organic matter, which can lower the concentration of the active ingredient to a level that may not be adequate for disinfection.

It’s important to only use EPA-registered disinfectants when you want to kill viruses that may spread cold and flu illnesses, as well as COVID-19. To help you choose the appropriate disinfectant, the list here is helpful:

When to sanitize or disinfect

Different situations determine which level of germ-kill is needed. Just be sure that any product you use to kill germs has an EPA registration and you follow the label instructions, including a pre-cleaning step and/or rinsing step if required.

To help prevent the spread of bacteria that can cause illness, routine sanitizing of hard, non-porous surfaces should be common practice in places such as child care settings, schools and public transit, as well as high-touch surfaces in the home. Restaurants and other businesses that handle food should also routinely sanitize hard, nonporous food-contact surfaces to help prevent the spread of illness. This also applies to the home kitchen, especially after handling raw meat.

If a member of your household has just recovered from an illness caused by a virus, it’s best to disinfect — not just sanitize — surfaces, as EPA-approved sanitizers only have claims for bacteria, while disinfectants have claims against both bacteria and viruses. In child care or education settings, regular disinfection is necessary on surfaces used for diaper changing, toilet training or cleaning up accidents involving bodily fluids.

Some products are EPA registered for both sanitizing and disinfecting. These will have different directions for use that typically have different dwell times (how long the active ingredient must remain on the surface) and/or product concentrations depending on the claim. It’s important to read and follow the directions to make sure you use the product correctly for your intended purpose. 

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  • 1.

    According to Saskia Popescu, Ph.D, MPH, MA, CIC, a senior hospital infection prevention epidemiologist at HonorHealth and paid Clorox consultant.