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Know the Difference Between Cleaning, Disinfecting, and Sanitizing

Know the Difference Between Cleaning, Disinfecting, and Sanitizing

“Honey, I’ll be right back, I’m just running out really quick to disinfect the car before we leave!” My, how times have changed. When we are talking about cleaning and disinfecting in today’s world, it’s important that we first know the facts. Let’s see how the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing.

Cleaning vs. Disinfecting & Sanitizing

One of the most basic, but essential, ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus in your household is to properly clean, disinfect, and sanitize all shared and frequently used surfaces. You might be thinking, “wait — what’s the difference?”

Cleaning removes germs. Disinfecting kills germs. Sanitizing lowers the number of germs.

More specifically, the difference between cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing is:

  • Cleaning “removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces or objects. Cleaning works using soap (or detergent) and water to physically remove germs from surfaces. This process does not necessarily kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of infection.”

  • Disinfecting “kills germs on surfaces or objects. Disinfecting works by using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces or objects. This process does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, but by killing germs on a surface after cleaning, it can further lower the risk of spreading infection.”

  • Sanitizing “lowers the numbers of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level, as judged by public health standards or requirements. This process works by either cleaning or disinfecting surfaces or objects to lower the risk of spreading infection.”

How to Properly Clean, Disinfect, and Sanitize

Whether you’re preparing to clean your car or tackle the painful act of cleaning the refrigerator, it’s essential to know how to properly clean, disinfect, and sanitize. Don’t make a mistake and think you’re sanitizing when you’re cleaning, or cleaning when you’re disinfecting, or disinfecting when you think you’re actually sanitizing. We know, it can be confusing.

To determine whether you should be cleaning, disinfecting, or sanitizing a surface, you should:

  • Match your cleaning and disinfecting activities to the types of germs you want to remove or kill
  • Wash surfaces with a general household cleaner to remove germs
  • Rinse surfaces and objects with water, then follow with an EPA-registered product that both cleans and disinfects
  • Read label directions carefully, as there may be a separate procedure for using the product as a cleaner or as a disinfectant. For example, to disinfect, it usually requires the product to remain on the surface for a certain period of time (e.g., letting it stand for 3-5 minutes)

So, now you know.

For more information visit the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) website,