Sanitizing vs. Disinfecting: You Might Not Be Cleaning Properly

Knowledge is cleaning power, right?

When discussing cleaning—especially tackling a deep clean—the words "sanitize" and "disinfect" get tossed around a lot. They're even used interchangeably. But there is a big difference between sanitizing and disinfecting. Knowing the distinction 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 big difference: Sanitization reduces contamination or bacteria to a safe level, while disinfection kills 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 since disinfecting often involves strong chemicals. (Cleaning, in the technical sense, is just wiping away debris or dirt without necessarily killing or removing any bacteria.)

Sanitize vs disinfect - the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting

So when should you sanitize, and when should you disinfect? Sanitizing is best for surfaces that don't typically come into contact with hazardous bacteria, or those that shouldn't come into contact with powerful chemicals: Think cooking tools and food prep surfaces or toys that children come into close contact with (or 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. Bathroom cleaners like Lysol Mold & Mildew Foamer with Bleach are designed to disinfect when left on surfaces for the recommended period of time.

After deciding which method to use, reach for a more powerful agent for disinfecting than you would for sanitizing. Water and bleach solutions can be a reliable sanitizer (in a lower concentration) and a powerful disinfectant (in a higher concentration), as long as you follow contact time recommendations. Cleaning vinegar is a popular cleaner, but it isn't a registered disinfectant or sanitizer and can't necessarily kill dangerous bacteria. Certain surfaces like natural stone, however, should not be cleaned with an acid-based formula because the porous material can erode in time—opt for a safe granite countertop cleaner like Method instead. An all-purpose cleaner like Clorox disinfecting wipes offers a convenient way to effectively clean, sanitize, and disinfect tricky items and surfaces such as doorknobs, keys, cell phones, and light switches.

If you're following the routine steps of your cleaning checklist, a gentle cleaner is fine for wiping away dirt and grime. Steam mops also provide an effective alternative to typical formulas for cleaning and sanitizing. 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 the proper vocabulary.

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