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The Difference Between Cleaning, Disinfecting, and Sanitizing

clean sanitize and disinfect germs

It’s the time of the year when cold and flu season is looming near. Everyone does what they can to protect themselves and others during fall and winter, and we often hear about cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing as approaches to prevent infectious diseases. While such terms are often used interchangeably, it’s surprising to find out that they’re actually distinct. Here’s the difference:

Clean = Germs are Removed

Cleaning a surface means microorganisms and germs are removed. When a surface has been cleaned, soap or detergent has driven out germs, dirt, and other allergens, helping diminish the number of organisms that lead to infections. While it does push out organisms from a space, it does not necessarily kill germs and bacteria.

Cleaning Tip:

Clean first! While it may not completely kill germs, it’s still important to scrub, sweep, or wipe dirt and dust from floors, corners, walls, etc. In general, it’s safe to clean where the risk of spreading pathogens is low. And in areas that are high, one can then apply a disinfectant.

Disinfect = Germs are Killed

Disinfecting a surface, on the other hand, means germs are eliminated and killed. Disinfecting doesn’t necessarily mean that cold and flu germs, dirt, and allergens are removed from the surface, yet by killing the pathogens, the risk of spreading a virus or bacteria is significantly lower. Use a disinfectant for high traffic areas where the risk of spreading cold and flu is high (think: gym mats and bathrooms).

Disinfecting Tip:

Follow a disinfectant’s labeled dwell time! A dwell time, or contact time, is the amount of time the manufacturer has set, from laboratory testing, for the disinfectant to remain wet on a surface. If proper dwell times aren’t followed, cold and flu pathogens may survive the application and continue to spread.

Sanitize = Germ count is lowered to a safe level

Sanitizing a surface means the germ count is considered safe by public health standards. Sanitary surfaces can be created by either removing germs (cleaning) or killing germs (disinfecting). There are a few ways to achieve a sanitized surface: heat, radiation, and chemicals. To sanitize germs using heat, one can use steam, hot water, or hot air at appropriate temperatures at the recommended amount of time. For radiation, ultralight radiation lowers germ count. To sanitize, chemicals are effective at recommended concentrations, including chlorine, iodine, and quaternary ammonium. (And proper dwell times should be followed as well.)

Sanitizing Tip:

Temperature and concentration are important! Many chemical sanitizers should be kept between 55 degrees F and 120 degrees F. Plus, if the concentration of the sanitizing agent is too low, cold and flu microorganisms may survive the application, but if the concentration is too high, the chemical could be toxic.

We’re ready to answer any cleaning questions you may have. From disinfectants to floor cleaning machines, we know how to protect you and your business.


Protect yourself from cold and flu germs this year.

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