The Difference Between Disinfecting, Sanitizing, and Cleaning

a variety of cleaners, disinfectants, and sanitizers

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

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 and organizing a space. Cleaning a surface uses soap or detergent and, usually, 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

When a product claims to sanitize a surface, it is promising to make the surface free of germs that could be harmful to your health according to public health standards or requirements. Sanitizing reduces, not kills, the number and growth of bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

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 can kill bacteria.

Definition of Disinfecting

The act of disinfecting kills microscopic organisms (germs, viruses, fungi) on 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-C germicidal short wavelength, ultraviolet light that breaks apart the DNA of bacteria and germs leaving them unable to harm or reproduce. This is the same UV-C 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 should be a routine process that occurs 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 health and hygiene and is particularly important on communal surfaces like countertops, doorknobs, light switches, touchpads, and any surface that comes in contact with body fluids. 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.

Tips for Proper Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting

  1. Do Routine Cleaning

    Dr. Michael G. Schmidt, professor of microbiology at the Medical University of South Carolina and chair of the American Society of Microbiology's Council on Microbial Sciences, says that the best way to protect your family from infectious diseases is to listen to your mother and, "Clean your house."

    Dr. Schmidt explains that after washing our hands, the next best way to protect our family is to wipe down countertops, doorknobs, light switches, and common surfaces with a microfiber cloth dipped in a solution of hot water and an all-purpose cleaner twice per day. "The slight abrasion of the microfiber cloth and the cleaning solution will lift and dilute any microbes that have settled on the surfaces," says Dr. Schmidt.

  2. 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.

  3. Read Labels and Follow Directions

    Almost all sanitizing and disinfecting products, including the ingredients on wipes, must remain on a surface for four to 10 minutes to effectively kill germs and bacteria. You must use a sufficient amount to keep the surface wet for that entire time and then allow the surface to air-dry.

  4. 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.

  5. Match the Best Cleaning Product With the Item to be Cleaned

    Electronic devices like remotes, game controllers, cellphones, touchpads, and keyboards are 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.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Steam Sterilization. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  2. Cleaning And Disinfecting Your Home. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

  3. Dangers of Mixing Bleach with Cleaners. Washington State Department of Health