Difference Between Cleaning Sanitizing And Disinfecting

Difference Between Cleaning Sanitizing And Disinfecting

Maintaining a clean and hygienic environment is essential for promoting health and preventing the spread of illnesses and infections. However, the terms cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are often used interchangeably, leading to confusion about their distinct purposes and processes. In this article, we unravel the differences between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting, shedding light on their unique roles in maintaining cleanliness and hygiene.


Cleaning is the initial step in the process of removing dirt, debris, and impurities from surfaces. It involves the physical removal of visible soil and organic matter through the use of water, detergents, and mechanical action, such as scrubbing or wiping. While cleaning does not necessarily kill germs, it helps reduce their numbers and removes organic matter that can harbor bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens.

Key Characteristics of Cleaning

  • Removal of Dirt and Debris: Cleaning focuses on removing visible dirt, dust, grease, and other contaminants from surfaces, restoring their appearance and cleanliness.
  • Mechanical Action: Cleaning often involves the use of scrubbing, wiping, or agitation to dislodge and lift soil from surfaces, making it easier to rinse away.
  • Use of Detergents: Detergents and cleaning agents help break down and dissolve grease, oils, and other residues, facilitating the removal of dirt and grime from surfaces.
  • Surface Preparation: Cleaning prepares surfaces for further treatment by removing surface soil and organic matter, improving the effectiveness of sanitizing and disinfecting agents.


Sanitizing is the process of reducing the number of germs on surfaces to a safe level as determined by public health standards. While sanitizing does not necessarily kill all bacteria, viruses, and fungi, it significantly reduces their presence to lower the risk of spreading infections. Sanitizing is typically applied to food contact surfaces, such as countertops, cutting boards, and utensils, to prevent cross-contamination and foodborne illnesses.

Key Characteristics of Sanitizing

  • Reduction of Microorganisms: Sanitizing reduces the number of germs on surfaces to a level considered safe by public health standards, typically by at least 99.9%.
  • Time and Temperature: Effective sanitization requires the use of sanitizing agents applied for a specific contact time and at the appropriate temperature to achieve optimal germ reduction.
  • Approved Sanitizing Agents: Common sanitizing agents include chlorine bleach, quaternary ammonium compounds (quats), hydrogen peroxide, and alcohol-based sanitizers, which are approved by regulatory agencies for use in food service establishments and healthcare facilities.
  • Focus on High-Touch Surfaces: Sanitizing is particularly important for high-touch surfaces and objects that come into direct contact with hands, food, or other potentially contaminated materials.


Disinfecting is the process of killing or inactivating germs, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, on surfaces and objects. Unlike sanitizing, which reduces the number of germs to a safe level, disinfecting aims to eliminate a broader spectrum of pathogens to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Disinfecting is essential in healthcare settings, food processing facilities, and areas where there is a higher risk of exposure to infectious agents.

Key Characteristics of Disinfecting

  • Elimination of Pathogens: Disinfecting kills or inactivates a broad range of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and spores, to reduce the risk of infection transmission.
  • Efficacy Against Specific Pathogens: Disinfectants are formulated to target specific types of pathogens and are classified based on their spectrum of activity, ranging from low-level disinfectants to high-level disinfectants and sterilants.
  • Contact Time and Concentration: Effective disinfection requires the use of disinfectants applied for a specific contact time and at the appropriate concentration to achieve optimal germ kill.
  • Regulatory Approval: Disinfectants must be registered and approved by regulatory agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or Health Canada, to ensure their safety and efficacy for use in healthcare, food service, and other regulated industries.

Cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are distinct processes with specific objectives and methods for maintaining cleanliness and hygiene. Cleaning removes visible dirt and debris from surfaces, sanitizing reduces the number of germs to a safe level, and disinfecting kills or inactivates a broad spectrum of pathogens to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Understanding the differences between these processes is essential for implementing effective cleaning and hygiene practices in homes, workplaces, healthcare facilities, and other settings to promote health and safety for all.