Cleaning, Disinfecting, and Sanitizing - What's The Difference?

Cleaning up the house or any living space is a generic term that means different things to different people. Your definition of cleaning up to your child may mean picking up scattered toys. Cleaning up the kitchen can mean just washing the dishes and putting away leftovers.

But there are distinct definitions of cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting surfaces in homes, schools, and public places. These definitions are set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to define the level of microbial contamination left on a surface after treatment.

For a homeowner, the terms will help you read product labels and determine if the products you are using are providing the proper level of sanitation needed if someone in your home is ill or has a compromised immune system.

Definition of Cleaning

Cleaning is the process of removing visible debris, dirt, and dust, but not at the microscopic level where many bacteria and germs live.

Cleaning a surface requires a surfactant (soap) and water to remove soil and germs through chemical (cleaner), mechanical (scrubbing), and thermal (water temperature) action.

Cleaning may or may not kill bacteria and germs, but it will dilute their numbers and aid in lowering the risk of spreading infectious microbes.

Definition of Sanitizing

Sanitizing reduces the number and growth of bacteria, viruses, and fungi on surfaces, but does not destroy all organisms present (99.9% effective).

Sanitizing is particularly important in food preparation areas where germs and fungi can cause foodborne illnesses. Chemicals may not be needed because extreme heat—at least 170 degrees F—in a dishwasher or by using a steam cleaner that can kill bacteria.

Definition of Disinfecting

Disinfecting destroys 99.999% of the germs, viruses, and fungi on everyday surfaces.

Disinfection is usually achieved by using EPA-approved chemicals that kill the organisms and prevent them from spreading.

Items can also be disinfected using UV-germicidal (ultraviolet) light that breaks apart the DNA of bacteria and germs leaving them unable to harm or reproduce. This is the same UV light technology used in hospital surgical suites to aid in killing superbugs. (Though the CDC cautions that UV-C light's efficacy against COVID-19 is not currently known, so be sure to confirmed chemicals.)

Disinfecting does not necessarily remove visible dirt and debris from a surface and is much more effective if basic cleaning is done first.

Should You Clean, Sanitize or Disinfect?

Cleaning is a necessary process that should occur on a daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal basis. Basic housekeeping maintains order, reduces the growth of potentially harmful organisms, helps keep pests under control, and protects the investment you've made in your home and belongings.

Sanitization is important for everyday health and hygiene and is particularly important on high-traffic areas like countertops, doorknobs, light switches, touchpads, etc. Sanitizing bed linens and undergarments is much more important than sanitizing dress shirts and slacks.

Disinfecting should always be done when someone in the household is ill or if someone has a compromised immune system. Following label instructions and using disinfectants correctly is vital to killing microorganisms. If the product is not used correctly, the process only offers a false sense of security. Always understand and apply the appropriate dwell time for your disinfectant.

Routine Cleaning Starts With Regular Hand Washing

Regular hand washing is the #1 way to keep yourself and those around you healthy and happy. Many diseases and conditions are spread by not washing hands with soap and clean, running water. CDC recommends cleaning hands in a specific way to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others - sing yourself happy birthday and don't forget your fingertips!

The guidance for effective handwashing and use of hand sanitizer was developed based on data from a number of studies. Going overboard on the cleaning and sanitizing can cause a new host of problems for you. Dry skin is the most well known symptom, and especially during the global pandemic

When To Wash Your Hands

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before and after eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

Add Sanitation and Disinfecting Products When Someone is Ill

If someone in your home is ill or has a compromised immune system or there is a widespread viral outbreak in the community, add sanitizing or disinfecting products to your regular cleaning routine.

Warning The overuse of disinfectants is a growing public health concern. Studies have found that the overuse of some disinfectant products is creating microbes that are resistant to particular disinfectants or that become superbugs. Disinfectant products are only needed in commonly shared high-touch areas and when someone in the household is ill.

Almost all sanitizing and disinfecting products, including the ingredients on wipes, must remain on a surface for 1 to 15 minutes to work effectively, depending on the situation. You must use a sufficient amount to keep the surface wet for that entire time and then allow the surface to air-dry.

Use Products Safely

Do not mix chemicals when cleaning.

Chlorine bleach, an excellent disinfectant, and ammonia, an excellent cleaner, when mixed together produce a toxic gas that can result in lung damage or death. Always provide adequate ventilation when using any type of cleaning product.

Wear protective eyewear and gloves when using harsh chemicals. And always wash your hands with soap and warm water after handling soiled garments, emptying waste receptacles, and using any cleaning product

Match the Best Cleaning Product With the Item to be Cleaned

Electronic devices like remotes, game controllers, cellphones, touchpads, and keyboards are surprisingly some of the germiest items in our home. The warmth of the devices encourages bacteria to go forth and multiply.

But these items cannot be cleaned with soap, water, and bleach. Check the manufacturer's cleaning instructions and use a disinfectant wipe or alcohol wipe to clean these devices.

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