No, disinfecting and sanitizing are not the same thing.

By Hana Hong
January 13, 2021
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Until last year, you probably never gave your disinfectant-of-choice a second thought—but now that we're living in a new age, sanitizing is always on the mind. Disinfectants are suddenly a hot commodity, and even when you're able to get your hands on a bottle, you're left wondering if you're using it right. Truth be told, we live in a he-said-she-said world when it comes to the most effective sanitizing and disinfecting practices, and there's a lot of misinformation out there. Since maintaining proper hygiene is more critical than ever, it's important to be able to decipher fact from fiction when it comes to your disinfecting habits. We asked top cleaning experts to bust some common disinfectant myths that they frequently hear, along with the real facts you actually need to keep your environment healthy.

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Although it’s commonly used synonymously, cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are three very separate things, says Steve Hengsperger, cleaning expert and CEO of Tersano. Rather, it’s a second step—what you do after you clean. 

According to the CDC, cleaning “refers to the removal of germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces. It does not kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.” Disinfecting, on the other hand, “refers to using chemicals, for example, EPA-registered disinfectants, to kill germs on surfaces. 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.”

“On bacteria, sanitizing requires a 99.999% (note five nines) reduction, whereas disinfecting requires a bigger (99.9999%; note six nines) reduction,” adds Hengsperger. “As soon as you start making claims on killing viruses (harder to kill than bacteria), then you are talking about disinfecting. There is one level higher, sterilizing, but this is only used for medical equipment.”

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You might be skeptical of eco-friendly and plant-based disinfectants, but don’t be too quick to write them off. “As long as the product is registered with the EPA as a disinfectant, it works,” says Marla Cloos, LEED, cleaning expert and certified green professional. “Many common alcohol-based products are made with isopropyl alcohol (from petroleum), but ethyl alcohol (alcohol made from plants) is a great plant-based alternative approved by the EPA.”

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It’s nice to think that our disinfectants are zapping virus particles in just one swipe, but like most good things, it takes time. “To pass the disinfectant test, the protocol actually allows up to 10 minutes of dwell/contact time,” says Hengsperger. “In other words, anything that works within that time frame is marketed and sold as a disinfectant.” No matter what product you use, it’s essential to check the product directions for how long surfaces should stay wet. You may need to saturate the surface for a few minutes to actually kill germs. 

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“Actually, if they are called a cleaner, then they have zero efficacy,” says Hengsperger. “By the nature of cleaning products, unless they state that they also disinfect, they will ONLY clean,” adds Cloos. “There are very few products that do both, and an even lesser number that do both safely without harsh chemicals.” If you’re unsure, check for the EPA registration number on your cleaner’s label. Then, type that number into the agency’s database to find out which bacteria and viruses it has been approved to work against.

RELATED: 6 Things That Are Naturally Antibacterial to Safely Disinfect Your Home

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We’re all for making use of common household items, but vinegar is not an EPA-registered disinfectant. According to Hengsperger, “Vinegar is not even an effective sanitizer, let alone disinfectant.” The CDC and NSF both state that though vinegar is a suitable cleaner (remember the difference between cleaning and disinfecting!), it is not strong enough to disinfect. To ensure you're properly disinfecting, avoid the funky odor and opt for EPA-registered products instead.

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Not necessarily. Historically, this was true, but in the past few years, more and more companies have been cranking out safer and more sustainable disinfectants to the mass market. “For example, the formula produced by iClean Mini is an EPA-registered disinfectant and as safe as water,” says Cloos. Just be sure to do your homework and read the fine print. If your disinfectant does contain potentially hazardous chemicals, it will require you to clean the surface after disinfecting to avoid leaving harmful residue behind.