Just as there are variations in how each chemical is composed, there are also differences in how each is best used.

“It’s the responsibility of whoever is in charge of the building to ensure the level of clean matches the need for that building,” says Bill Fellows, a green cleaning consultant. “You need to understand what you’re trying to accomplish and which products will achieve that goal.”

An all-purpose cleaner is likely sufficient for most surfaces where the likelihood of cross-contamination is low. More importantly, a cleaner should always be used to remove visible soil from any surface prior to sanitizing or disinfecting.

“When most of the soil and micro-soil is removed from a surface, sanitizers and disinfectants are much more effective,” Hicks says. “They don’t stand up well to dirt, so cleaning is an especially important first step.”

A sanitizer is most often used in food service areas and childcare facilities. This is because, to date, disinfectants are categorized and regulated by the EPA as pesticides, and too toxic to be used around anything that can be put in the mouth. Sanitizers can also be used on touch points in non-critical environments, like office spaces, where a cleaner may not be strong enough, but a disinfectant isn’t necessary.

“Touch points are a high priority because of cross-contamination,” says Vince Elliott, consultant and president of Elliott Affiliates Ltd.

Disinfectants are most commonly used in medical facilities where drug-resistant organisms like MRSA or C.diff are an issue. These buildings may also require disinfecting by various local, state or federal guidelines. In these cases, disinfectants can make kill claims for pathogens that sanitizers cannot.

“If you have a situation where you know there’s potential for additional germs that aren’t going away with sanitation, then you take the step of applying a disinfectant to improve the public health safety,” says Fellows.

Regardless of environment, disinfectants are the go-to chemical during an outbreak of illness, such as norovirus.

“That’s a very different model,” says Elliott. “In that case, everybody is disinfecting, not just touch points but everything.”

Based on the aforementioned differences between cleaners, sanitizers and disinfectants, one might wonder, if disinfectants will nearly kill everything in their path, why not always use them? Well, in addition to being overkill, disinfectants can be a budget buster when used needlessly.

While general-purpose cleaners range from $.06 to $.16 per gallon of in-use solution, sanitizers range from $.15 to $1.50 and disinfectants range from $.15 to $7.00.

Finally, facilities focusing on green cleaning will want to choose products with less environmental impact. In many cases, that means not using chemicals, but instead choosing products such as bio-enzymatic cleaners, hydrogen-peroxide sanitizers, activated water or ultraviolet light. While there are currently no truly “green” disinfectants, facilities can choose the least toxic options.