Cleaning vs. Disinfecting vs. Sanitizing

Cleaning vs. Disinfecting vs. Sanitizing

Many people use the words cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing interchangeably. I know I used to be guilty of this particular faux pas. The only reason I learned the difference is because in our industry, it is downright dangerous to mistake any one of these words for another one. Each one of these actions has a different end result and in facilities and maintenance, you need to know what you are trying to accomplish in order to start the proper process.


Cleaning refers to the physical removal of dirt and grime from a surface. This is usually done with water and some kind of detergent or general cleaning agent.  When someone is finished cleaning a surface, it will be visibly clean—you will not see chunks of dirt, messy streaks or any lingering residue from the cleaning process. It is also important to note that cleaning is the first step to disinfecting or sanitizing a surface. If a surface is not cleaned of physical dirt and dust, it will be practically impossible to kill the germs on the same surface.


Disinfecting refers to the process of killing mass amounts of bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. on a particular surface. When a surface is properly disinfected, the germs on that surface are killed and unable to do more damage. Please note that once a surface is contaminated again, it will need to be disinfected again. In order to properly disinfect a surface, it is important to follow the directions for the chemical as outlined by the manufacturer. Many people don’t realize that many disinfectants need a dwell time of 10+ minutes or that only certain wipers can properly pick up the chemical from the surface in question.  Disinfection is a process that needs to be done by the book in order to be effective.


Similar to disinfecting, sanitizing also refers to killing bacteria, viruses and fungi. However, during the sanitizing process, far fewer germs are killed. The point of sanitizing a surface is to make it safe for users in a short period of time. While disinfection takes 10 minutes or so, sanitizing can happen in as little as 30 seconds. Sanitizing lowers the number of bacteria or germs on a surface to a safe amount but it doesn’t make the surface uninhabitable for these microorganisms.  This is an ideal process for restaurants and other food service venues that need to quickly get rid of germs but need to keep moving.

If you are unsure of which process you need in your site or don’t know which chemicals in your arsenal will work best for what you need to accomplish, please feel free to email me at or check out our training library for helpful tips and information. We like keeping your business clean (and disinfected and sanitized too)!

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