The Difference between Cleaning, Sanitizing and Disinfecting

Cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting are part of a broad approach to prevent infectious diseases, including COVID-19. To help slow the spread of the virus that causes illnesses, preventive measures such as washing hands often and of course regular cleaning and disinfection is required.

Cleaning is the process of removing foreign material from areas and objects, achieving and maintaining an area to a standard deemed visually free from debris which can include dirt, food, faeces, blood, saliva and other body secretions. Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces or objects. Cleaning works by using a cleaning agent such as soap or detergent together with water to physically remove germs from surfaces. This process does not necessarily kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection. Studies have shown that over 90% of bacteria is removed from surfaces that are thoroughly cleaned first. 

Thorough cleaning is always deemed necessary and required before disinfection and sterilization so that no organic materials left on surfaces interfere with the effectiveness of disinfection and sterilization. Having said this, it is important to highlight that cleaning by itself is not enough to ensure that your home or workplace won’t have any undesirable micro-organisms at surface level, therefore it is very important to remember the fact that cleaning is merely the first step in the infection control process and disinfection and sanitization is required to ensure the home or workplace environment is germs free.  

Sanitizing reduces the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level, as judged by public health standards or requirements and lowers the risk of spreading infection.

Cleaning a surface simply removes visible debris, dirt and dust, however sanitizing a surface makes that surface free of visible dirt contaminants that could affect your health. Sanitizing is meant to reduce, not kill, the occurrence and growth of bacteria, viruses and fungi.

When you sanitize, you are reducing the number of bacteria present by 99.9% but doing nothing about viruses and fungus. Sanitizing is better than cleaning alone however to kill the pathogen populations on environmental surfaces disinfection is required.

Disinfection is the process of destroying pathogenic microorganisms and removes most organisms present on surfaces. Disinfectants are antimicrobial agents that are applied to non-living objects to destroy microorganisms that are living on the objects, that work by destroying the cell wall of microbes or interfering with the metabolism.

Disinfecting kills germs on surfaces or objects. Disinfecting works by using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces or objects. This process does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, but by killing germs on a surface after cleaning, it can further lower the risk of spreading infection.

To show the difference between sanitization and disinfection please consider this: if we start with 1 million organisms on a surface then a disinfectant must kill 100 percent of them, meaning there are zero organisms left. A sanitizer however only reduces the number of organisms down to 1,000 and does nothing about virus and fungus.

It is important to highlight that many disinfectants not clean dirt, therefore cleaning is an especially important first step in your hygiene routine. Also some disinfectants are designed for a specific purpose, such as surfaces or instruments, therefore it is highly important that you make yourself familiar with all label information in order to ensure these are used purposefully as well as ensuring your safety by using appropriate protective clothing and equipment.

Remember after general cleaning you should disinfect – not sanitize – because only disinfectants kill 100% of viruses on hard surfaces.