Sanitize vs. Disinfect: Differences in Cleaning Methods

Published April 6, 2020
Person Using Disinfectant

When it comes to house cleaning, there really isn't a right or wrong way. However, it's important to know the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, sterilizing and disinfecting. Despite what you might be thinking, they aren't all the same. And knowing the difference can help to keep you and your family safe from those viruses and bacteria, like COVID-19 and MRSA, trying to make you sick.

What Sanitize vs. Disinfect vs. Clean Means

In your mad dash to get cleaning supplies to fight off viruses, like the coronavirus or flu, you might be wondering what is the most effective type of cleaning. Are all cleaning methods equal? The short answer is no. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) break down the differences when it comes to cleaning, disinfecting, sterilizing and sanitizing. Knowing the difference can save you from getting sick.

What Is Cleaning?

When you say that you're cleaning something, this is the process of removing dirt or debris, according to the CDC. Cleaning typically involves using water, soap or detergent to remove dirt and grim from an area. You might think of cleaning as when you get down and scrub the bathroom tub. This method will not necessarily kill fungi, bacteria or viruses, but it can reduce their numbers.

Disinfect vs. Sanitize

Cleaning is important, but to really get rid of those germs, you need to disinfect and sanitize the area, states the CDC. While some people might think that the two terms are interchangeable, they are not. Sanitizing is typically less invasive than disinfecting. To really understand the terms, it is important to look at their definitions.

  • Sanitizers are chemicals used to reduce the number of microbes to what the EPA considers acceptable levels.
  • Disinfectants, on the other hand, work to kill all or most germs on a surface, except for bacterial spores. They will not remove the germs, but they will kill them. However, disinfectants are pretty harsh and can have some toxic effects, according to the EPA.

When to Sanitize

In your home, you'll typically need to choose when to disinfect and when to sanitize. Sanitizing is the less invasive of the two cleaning methods and involves less harsh chemicals, which is why this method of killing germs is used a lot in the foodservice industry. Sanitizing is all about making your area sanitary. You might sanitize areas of your home that have less lethal germs like your children's toys or tables.

Woman Uses Hand Sanitizer

What Are Types of Sanitizers?

Some of the most common sanitizers used in households and in the food industry is bleach and ammonia. Bleach and ammonia, always used separately to avoid a harmful chemical reaction, are very effective for getting bacteria to an acceptable level. Another type of sanitizer that might come to mind is hand sanitizer. Typically, alcohol-based, these work to kill up to 99.9% of bacteria and germs on your hands.

When to Disinfect

Disinfectants kill more germs than sanitizers. However, they have harsher chemicals or mixtures and can come with some real dangers. You will choose to use a disinfectant on areas that can have really dangerous germs. For example, in the hospital, disinfectants are used for bodily fluids. In your home, you might use disinfectants on your toilet or areas that are touched a lot like doorknobs to stop the spread of bacteria and viruses.

Woman Cleans Doorknob Using Disinfectant Wipe

Types of Disinfectants

Disinfectants are going to kill at least 99.9999% of microbes, and they are also going to do it quickly. Additionally, disinfectants are typically broken down into those that you might use in your home or those that are used in a hospital setting. The EPA offers a list of disinfectants effective against viruses like COVID-19, but common ones include thymol, sodium hypochlorite, hydrogen peroxide and quaternary ammonium. Product names you might recognize include Clorox and Lysol cleaners.

Sanitize vs. Sterilize

When talking about removing germs, it's also important to cover the difference between sanitizing and sterilizing. Given the similarity in spelling, it's easy to confuse them. But sterilization is something that is typically done in a medical facility to kill germs. Rather than using a cleaning agent, sterilization uses steam, EtO gas and other liquid chemicals to completely destroy any and all microbial life. This is the process that is used by medical doctors to sterilize their needles and surgical instruments. Sterilization typically isn't a process you'll do at home.

Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Home

Cleaning and disinfecting your home is important for keeping dangerous viruses way. However, knowing the difference between disinfecting vs. sanitizing vs. sterilizing can make sure that you're making your home as clean and safe as possible.

Sanitize vs. Disinfect: Differences in Cleaning Methods