The Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting

Not all cleaning jobs are created equal. While some methods might seem interchangeable, there are actually some major distinctions between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting your home.

“Cleaning refers to organizing and wiping down surfaces, like countertops, so that they appear neat and spotless,” says Kadi Dulude, owner of Wizard of Homes. “All-purpose cleaners are built to lift and remove visible smudges, spots, stains, and debris from surfaces.” Cleaning products can potentially remove germs from surfaces (along with dirt and other organic material) and wash them away, but the goal of cleaning is about the look and feel.

While cleaners will help make your surfaces look nice and shiny, there are some places at home (like your kitchen counters, faucet handles, and doorknobs) where you want to follow up your cleaning with a sanitizer or a disinfectant. Cleaning by itself won’t kill germs like bacteria, viruses, or fungi.

Sanitizing vs. Disinfecting

The difference between sanitizing and disinfecting comes down to semantics. Both sanitizing and disinfecting aim to reduce the amount of contamination present on a surface by killing germs, but disinfecting—by definition—kills more germs than sanitizing. Product manufacturers and agencies like the EPA use the word “sanitizing” to refer to a solution or device that reduces the amount of germs on a surface by 99.9 percent or more—a level that’s considered safe by public health standards. They use the word “disinfecting” for chemical products that are designed to “kill virtually everything” on a surface.

When to Sanitize

“Sanitizing is necessary for surfaces that come in contact with food,” Dulude says. “Created with pathogens that reduce germs and fungi, sanitizing sprays will make your surfaces safe to touch again.”

Sanitizing can also be done without chemicals, by an appliance like a dishwasher or laundry machine (on the “sanitize” cycle), or a steam cleaner, which bring contaminated surfaces into contact with extreme heat (at least 170 degrees) to kill bacteria and other germs. Steam cleaning is especially useful for removing germs from porous surfaces—like fabric, carpets and upholstery—which can’t be effectively disinfected with chemical products designated for hard surfaces. If the washer you’re using doesn’t have a sanitize cycle, a product like liquid laundry sanitizer can work alongside your normal detergent to help remove and kill germs from your clothing—the directions on Lysol’s Laundry Sanitizer instruct you to add it to your machine’s fabric softener dosing cup, or directly into the rinse cycle.

When to Disinfect

If you absolutely need to remove every last bit of contamination in a space, you’ll need a good disinfectant spray to get the job done. “A quality disinfectant spray should remove 100 percent of the microscopic organisms on your surfaces,” Dulude says. “While it may not be that helpful in the stain-removing department, it will effectively stop the spread of diseases and viruses—like colds and flus—wherever you use it.”

You may consider reaching for a disinfectant to treat high-touch areas like doorknobs, light switches, and bathroom faucets, especially when a member of the household has been sick. To be effective, disinfecting solutions need to remain in contact with the surface for a specified length of time. For instance, the instructions on a container of Clorox Wipes direct you to wipe the surface “using enough wipes for the treated surface to remain visibly wet for four minutes.”

You don’t want to skip the step of cleaning before you disinfect, though. Dirt and organic material can make some disinfectants less effective, so cleaning is necessary before disinfecting in most cases. Using “all-in-one” antibacterial cleaners isn’t enough to disinfect unless you first remove visible dirt from the surface (basically, you’d have to clean everything twice).

One Thing to Know Before You Disinfect Around Your Home

The EPA warns that the overuse of disinfectants is a growing public health concern—and that you should only use them when you absolutely need to, for that specific task. “Studies have found that the use of some disinfectant products is creating microbes that can mutate into forms that are resistant to particular disinfectants or that become superbugs,” according to an EPA fact sheet. “These resistant germs are also harder to kill with antibiotics.”

Is Bleach a Sanitizer or Disinfectant?

Household bleach can be used as a sanitizer or a disinfectant, depending on how much it’s diluted. But because concentrations of bleach can be inconsistent, and home dilution often inexact, if you need to be absolutely sure you’re disinfecting a surface, you’re better off following the instructions on a commercial disinfecting product.

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