Knowledge is cleaning power, right?

By Lauren Phillips
Updated July 10, 2019
Sanitize vs disinfect - the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting

When you talk or read about cleaning—especially tackling a deep clean—the words sanitize and disinfect get tossed around a lot. In casual uses, they’re often even used interchangeably, though there is a big difference between sanitizing and disinfecting. Knowing the distinction between the two can affect the cleaning products you choose and how you use them—and it can mean getting a better, deeper clean where you need it most.

First, the distinction in the sanitize vs. disinfect discussion: Sanitization is reducing a contamination or bacteria to a safe level, while disinfection is killing everything on a particular surface, according to Travers Anderson, R&D Group Manager at Clorox. Think of sanitizing as lowering the level of germs on a surface, while disinfecting is killing all of them. Sanitizing is a little gentler than disinfecting, which can be powerful and often uses strong chemicals. (Cleaning, in the technical sense, is just wiping away debris or dirt, without necessarily killing or removing any bacteria.)

So when should you sanitize, and when should you disinfect? Sanitizing is best for surfaces that don’t typically come into contact with seriously dangerous bacteria, or those that are best left without contact with powerful chemicals: Think cooking tools and food prep surfaces or toys that children come into close contact with (or even put into their mouths). Disinfecting is for the big messes, particularly those involving bodily fluids, blood, and the like. In household settings, you’d disinfect a toilet or sinks; disinfection is also used regularly in medical contexts.

When it comes to deciding to sanitize vs. disinfect, you’d want to use a more powerful agent for disinfecting than you would for sanitizing. Water and bleach solutions can be both a sanitizer and a disinfectant (in a lower concentration for the former, in a higher concentration for the latter)—and pretty reliable, powerful ones, at that, as long as you follow contact time recommendations. Cleaning vinegar, on the other hand, is a popular cleaner, but it isn’t a registered disinfectant or sanitizer and can’t necessarily kill dangerous bacteria.

If you’re doing a routine, gentle clean as part of your cleaning checklist, you’re fine using a gentle cleaner and simply wiping away dirt and grime. If you need something stronger, though, knowing the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting can help you decide when to pull out the heavy-duty cleaners. At the very least, you can rest assured that you’re throwing around proper vocabulary.