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Clean vs. Disinfect

The difference between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting

A lot of people believe that if a surface looks clean, it is safe to touch. But is it? While infection prevention is a priority for most businesses and public places, there is still a need for improved cleaning protocols that can help ensure public health and safety.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as few as 18 invisible viral particles can make you sick. To put things in perspective, about 18,000 viral particles can comfortably sit on the tip of a pencil. Knowing that, it can be hard to picture the sheer number of viruses and pathogens that may be resting under the lip of a counter or even on an airplane seat. That’s why it’s crucial to know the differences between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, as well as understand the outcome of each method before setting your routine.


The main purpose of cleaning is to remove visible soil, stains, debris, microorganisms, and organic substances from surfaces using soap and water. The process of cleaning does not kill germs but may reduce their numbers.

Typically, surfaces require cleaning to remove impurities before they can be disinfected or sanitized. This is because the presence of dirt and other organic substances can decrease the effectiveness of your sanitizer or disinfectant. That’s why cleaning is still an important first step in your sanitizing and disinfecting practices.


Sanitizing methods use either heat, ultraviolet light radiation, or all-purpose cleaners to kill or reduce the number of bacteria present on surfaces to levels deemed safe by public health safety standards — helping to decrease the risk of infection. And while sanitizing can eliminate up to 99.9 percent of bacteria, it may not destroy viruses or fungi.

Sanitizing is a more common practice for dishwashing, laundering, and cleaning surfaces used for food preparation to prevent contamination from harsh chemical residues.


The process of disinfecting uses chemicals to eliminate up to 99.999 percent of germs and disease-causing pathogens (except for bacterial spores) on hard, non-porous surfaces and objects. Keyboards, office phones, sink faucets, water fountains, door handles, and elevator panels are just a few examples of common, high-touch surfaces that can harbor high levels of contaminants and would benefit from routine disinfection. To achieve a chemical’s germ kill claim on these surfaces, the disinfectant needs to sit on a surface for the amount of time specified on the chemical’s label before it is dried or wiped away. This is known as the “dwell time.”

When selecting a chemical disinfectant, it’s important to reference the solution’s label to know which contagions it’s formulated to kill. While pathogens like the flu virus are relatively susceptible to basic disinfecting solutions, stronger viruses, bacteria, and fungi will require more powerful disinfecting methods. Disinfecting chemicals must also be registered with the EPA before they are deemed safe for use in your specific space or facility.

A wide range of devices can be used to distribute disinfectants onto surfaces. Wipes and spray bottles are the most common method for small areas but are only effective when used correctly. For example, it is recommended that you only use one wipe for every two square feet of surface. To disinfect larger spaces and surfaces, foggers and electrostatic sprayers can be used. But regardless of the method you choose, it is important that you establish a consistent disinfecting routine to help minimize the spread of most common illnesses. For more information, visit the CDC website for disinfecting best practices as well as pathogen-specific control.

How to know when to clean, sanitize or disinfect

It’s important to think about your desired outcome when selecting between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting methods for your space. If the goal is aesthetics or to prepare a space for disinfection or sanitization, then traditional cleaning techniques should suffice. On the other hand, if you are dealing with a surface used for food preparation, sanitizing methods are recommended to prevent food from coming into contact with harsh chemicals. And if you’re trying to eliminate all disease-causing pathogens on high-touch surfaces, then disinfecting is the preferred method. More importantly, any combination of cleaning, sanitizing, or disinfecting should be conducted regularly to ensure your space’s health and cleanliness.