The Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing and Disinfecting

Although cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are terms often used interchangeably, they have significantly different meanings. A better understanding of these terms can determine if you properly use chemicals and prevent pathogens from spreading on your surfaces. In a nutshell, cleaners remove dirt and soil, sanitizers lower the number of germs on the surface to a level considered safe for the public, and disinfectants kill virtually all microorganisms and are more effective than sanitizers.  

Here is a breakdown of the cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting processes to ensure maximum effectiveness.


Cleaning is an important first step to ensure you remove most germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces. Different cleaning agents are used depending on the item to be cleaned, the cleaning method, and the type of soiling found on the item. While cleaners remove visible dirt and grime. they won’t necessarily eliminate bacteria or viruses.  There are four main types of cleaning agents. 

  1. Detergents
  2. Degreasers
  3. Abrasives
  4. Acids

For effective cleaning, be sure to use the correct cleaning agent for the item to be cleaned, the cleaning method you’ll be using, and the soiling on the item.  

1. Detergents

Detergents are the most common cleaning agent used in home and commercial settings. They work by breaking up dirt or soil, making it easy to wash it away. A detergent is a synthetic, man-made derivative that falls into a water-soluble or liquid organic preparation category. They can emulsify oils, hold dirt in suspension, and act as wetting agents. They are extremely versatile cleaners and come in different forms, from gel and powder to liquid. Most all detergent requires water to work. They should not be used on surfaces like hardwood floors, leather, or mirrored surfaces.

2. Degreasers

Degreasers are sometimes known as solvent cleaners and remove organic soils, like fats, oils, and proteins; you use these primarily in the kitchen. “Organic soils are best removed with higher pH (or alkaline) solutions.  Oven cleaners, for example, are highly alkaline since they need to clear baked-on carbonized messes that build up over time. Milder degreasers with lower alkalinity are designed to keep the integrity of the surface they are being used on. Avoid mixing degreasers with other chemical cleaning agents such as bleach, acids, caustics, and ammonia. 

3. Abrasives

Abrasives are substances or chemicals that require rubbing or scrubbing to clean dirt from hard surfaces. Use abrasives to remove a heavy amount of soil in a smaller area. These types of cleaners come in powdered and liquid varieties—or the form of a scouring pad. The abrasive action is provided by a physical, mineral, or chemical force. Minerals (like feldspar, calcite, silica, and more), substances (like salt, baking soda, and powdered borax), or materials (like steel wool, copper, nylon, and metal) can all qualify as abrasives. Generally, the larger the particles used in the product, the harsher the cleaner. 

4. Acids

An acid is a cleaning solution with a pH of six or lower. Acid cleaners are the most powerful cleaning agent and should be used carefully. If they are not diluted correctly, acid cleaners can be poisonous and corrosive. Acids range from very mild to very strong.  Examples of acidic cleansers include hard water or mineral deposit removers, toilet bowl cleaners, rust stain removers, tub and tile cleaners, and mold removers.

Always wear protective eyewear and a skin barrier (like gloves) regardless of the type of acid you’re using to clean. Also,  never leave acid cleansers on surfaces longer than the directions specify, as they will cause damage if used incorrectly.


Sanitizers help reduce the remaining germs and bacteria on surfaces after cleaning. Sanitizing uses chemicals but is not intended to kill viruses. As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “sanitizer is an agent that reduces the number of bacterial contaminants to safe levels as judged by public health requirements.”

For a product to be labeled as a sanitizer (or a disinfectant) in the U.S., it must undergo testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Testing ensures the product is effective against all organisms listed on its label if used per label instructions. Surfaces must be cleaned before sanitizing them.  

Industrial sanitizers are typically used in hospitals, schools, and other public places where there is a high risk of exposure to bacteria. Industrial sanitizers differ from household cleaners. They are designed to kill a wider range of bacteria and improve industrial hygiene and general cleanliness.

Food-Contact Surfaces

Extra caution must be taken regarding food-contact surfaces or where food may be prepared, served, or stored. While disinfectants can be used on food-contact surfaces, they must be rinsed with water after the required dwell time. On the other hand, sanitizers are divided into food-contact and non-food-contact categories.

Most food-contact sanitizers have directions for use on food-contact surfaces without rinsing (though the specific label should always be consulted). As such, they are usually favored for food service settings.

Germicidal bleach can be used on food contact surfaces at a rate of 200 PPM. Sanidate 5.0 is another popular sanitizer. After disinfecting any food contact surface, that surface must be cleaned and sanitized before resuming use with food. Disinfecting food contact surfaces routinely will lead to potential chemical contamination of your food supply.  


Disinfectant products can kill viruses and bacteria that remain on surfaces after cleaning. The EPA provides a list of approved disinfectants for specific pathogens. The main difference between sanitizers and disinfectants is the amount and type of microorganisms they kill. Sanitizers kill enough bacteria to make surfaces safe, whereas disinfectants eliminate almost all organisms and can also kill viruses and fungi.

Surface disinfectant products are subject to more rigorous EPA testing requirements and must clear a higher bar for effectiveness than surface sanitizing products. Many products are registered with EPA as sanitizers and disinfectants because they’ve been tested using both methods. EPA-registered sanitizers and disinfectants may also contain cleaning agents.

High-Touch Surfaces

Use disinfectant on high-touch surfaces— surfaces people frequently touch, such as doorknobs, handles, trash can lids, etc. Although cleaning high-touch surfaces is helpful, disinfecting kills pathogens. If the surface is visibly dirty, it must be cleaned before using a disinfectant for it to be effective. The recommended bleach concentration is 1,000 PPM (1/3 cup per gallon of water). Read the product label instructions to ensure the correct “contact time” – how long a disinfectant must stay wet on a surface to ensure maximum efficacy.

In healthcare environments, standard cleaning and disinfection include walls, floors, furniture, sinks and taps, stairway rails, touch screens, countertops, door handles, and light switches and equipment. From common areas to patient and resident rooms, disinfecting reduces the spread of harmful infection-causing pathogens.  

Use Cleaning and Disinfecting Products Safely 

Follow these safety guidelines when using chemical disinfectants:

  • Always read and follow the directions on the label to ensure safe and effective use and disposal.
  • Wear the recommended protective equipment (gloves or goggles) to protect your skin and eyes from potential splashes.
  • Leave the disinfectant on the surface long enough to kill the germs. This is called the contact time. You can find the contact time in the directions. The surface should stay wet during the entire contact time to make sure germs are killed.
  • Ensure good ventilation if using products indoors (for example, use a fan or open windows and doors to allow fresh air to enter).
  • If the directions tell you to dilute the product with water, use water at room temperature (unless the label says otherwise).
  • Label diluted cleaning or disinfectant solutions.
  • Store and use chemicals out of the reach of children and pets.
  • Do not mix products or chemicals.
  • Do not eat, drink, breathe, or inject disinfection products into your body or apply them to your skin. These products can cause serious harm.
  • Do not wipe or bathe pets with any disinfection products.
  • Immediately after disinfecting, wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.

Hire a Commercial Cleaning and Janitorial Service

Establish an environmental program for your facility that emphasizes people, processes, and products to set a standard for cleaning and disinfection that’s automatic and routine. Hire Cleanstart, and you can expect an immaculate facility through cleaning practices that maximize efficacy and dedicated support to handle any cleaning challenge.  

Since every facility is different, we consider the size of the area, the type of cleaning process needed, and the chemicals or treatment that should be applied. Our experienced cleaning crews are professionally trained to provide a consistently high level of service.   

We offer

  • Over 25 years in the commercial cleaning Industry
  • Professionally-trained cleaning crews
  • Customized cleaning solutions
  • Highest standard of clean
  • Recurring and one-time cleanings
  • Flexible scheduling
  • Quick response times
  • Emergency cleanings
  • Licensed, bonded, and insured
  • Electrostatic spray disinfection
  • 100% satisfaction guarantee
  • OSHA, HIPAA, EPA, CDC, compliant

Call us at (253) 921-2593 to learn more about our wide range of commercial cleaning services for office buildings, warehouses, industrial facilities, schools, healthcare environments, multi-tenant high-rises, and more. Request a free consultation and cleaning estimate today. We proudly service the following areas in Greater Puget Sound.

 Auburn, Bellevue, Bellingham, Bonney Lake, Bremerton, Factoria, Fife, Gig Harbor, Kent, Lakewood, Olympia, Puyallup, Renton, Seattle, Tacoma, Tukwila, University Place, King County, Kitsap County, Pierce County, Thurston County.


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