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Understanding the Differences Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting


In the past year, cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting have taken center stage like never before. Frequent hand washing and sanitizing commonly touched surfaces is now second nature. However, many people don’t fully understand the differences between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting.

These terms are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences between them and it is critical to use the right methods in the right situations. Understanding these differences is the first step in deciding what your goal is and which products to use to meet that goal.  


Technically speaking, cleaning is the removal of gross debris and dirt from a surface. This can be achieved through mechanical scrubbing, sweeping, washing with a detergent, and rinsing surfaces. The act of cleaning does not kill bacteria or viruses, but will remove them to a certain degree. However, it cannot be assumed that cleaning alone will reduce the presence of bacteria and viruses to a level that is considered safe. 

Some specific examples of cleaning include:

    •  Spraying down a surface to remove dirt and dust
    •  Wiping down a countertop with a sponge and dish detergent
    •  Sweeping a floor to remove debris and dirt

Cleaning can be an important first step when sanitizing or disinfecting, but if removing bacteria or viruses is the goal, cleaning is not enough. 


Sanitizing is the removal and reduction of bacteria on surfaces or in fabrics to a level that is considered safe. This can be achieved with chemicals, heat, or steam. Sanitizing a surface does not kill pathogens, it just removes them. The definition of the term “safe” depends on the industry and application. For example, sanitizing requirements for a hospital are different from a school or food processing environment. 

The targeted bacteria for a sanitizer are identified on the product’s label claims, and efficacy depends on the types of chemicals used. One type of sanitizer may be effective against E. coli, but not against Salmonella, for example. 

Practical examples of sanitizing include:

    •  Spraying a countertop with a bleach solution or other sanitizer
    •  Mopping the floor with water and a chemical sanitizer
    •  Sanitizing dishes in a dishwasher

It’s also important to note that EPA-registered label claims for sanitizers only apply to bacteria. There are no EPA-registered sanitizers that can claim to be effective against viruses—if a product is labeled only as a sanitizer, do not assume it will work on viruses. 


Disinfecting is the destruction of bacteria and viruses on surfaces through chemical action. Much like sanitizers, the targeted pathogens are identified in the product’s label claims, so make sure you select a product that is effective against the bacteria or virus you are trying to kill. Unlike sanitizers, a disinfectant’s label claims can include both bacteria and viruses.

Products must go through a more rigorous testing process to be labeled disinfectants, and a product can be labeled as both a sanitizer and disinfectant. Most disinfecting products have a minimum recommended contact time for efficacy, so be sure to follow the instructions for use. 

The most common example of disinfecting is spraying a chemical disinfectant on a surface according to the label’s instructions. Using a chemical disinfectant is the best way to reduce the spread of pathogens through touch transfer on surfaces because bacteria and viruses are killed, not just removed.

Why the Difference Is Important

The best method depends on the end goal. In some cases, cleaning is sufficient, but in many scenarios, a certain level of sanitizing or disinfecting is required. For COVID-19 applications, look for an EPA-approved disinfectant that is effective against the virus. Take a moment to understand the importance of log kills and look for products with higher log kill rates.

Some products—such as bleach—require thorough cleaning before disinfection, because soils on the surface impact efficacy. When used on food contact surfaces, these products also require a potable water rinse after application. Always take the time to read the application instructions on the label so you can be sure you are getting maximum efficacy from the product. 

Choose D7 for Cleaning and Disinfection

D7 can clean and disinfect in a single step because of its unique formulation that includes detergent. D7 also does not require mechanical scrubbing to effectively destroy bacteria on surfaces because the cells are killed at the DNA level. This saves labor resources because less work is required to achieve efficacy. 

To learn more about D7 and how it can be used against COVID-19 in your industry, read The Decon7 Guide to Coronavirus Disinfection in Commercial, Industrial, and Public Facilities.

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