Maintaining a clean, safe and healthy facility is no easy task. Germs truly are everywhere, and while some are helpful, others are harmful and can cause illness or even lead to deadly outbreaks — as was the case with the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Experts in the cleaning industry have probably heard repeatedly that cleaning is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of illness-causing germs. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of illness is routinely cleaning and disinfecting or sanitizing surfaces. 

However, a key part of the above recommendation is performing the cleaning process in conjunction with either disinfecting or sanitizing.  

Too often, and many times without realizing, people use the terms “cleaning,” “sanitizing,” and “disinfecting” interchangeably, but these words carry distinct and critical differences when referring to product and process efficacy.  

In truth, “cleaning” technically does not kill any germs on a surface or object. Yep, that’s right — cleaning alone does not kill germs.  

Now, one might ask themself, “So, what is cleaning, and why is it important?” 

The True Definition of Cleaning 

“Cleaning” is the physical removal of soils from a surface. This includes soils such as dust, dirt, food residue, and other grime using soap (or detergent) and water. 

While cleaning removes soils from the surface, it doesn’t necessarily eliminate germs. However, by removing soils, the number of germs on the surface or object can be lowered and reduce the risk of spreading infection. 

“Cleaning” is truly just the first step in a two-step process. Cleaning teams looking to actually kill and remove germs will need to disinfect or sanitize the area after cleaning.  

Disinfecting vs. Sanitizing  

Disinfecting and sanitizing are similar in that both processes work to reduce the number of germs on a surface, preventing them from spreading. However, they have different uses and efficacies.

Disinfecting kills viruses and bacteria on surfaces or objects, while sanitizing lowers the number of bacteria on surfaces or objects to a safe level, as judged by public health standards or requirements.  

The most notable difference between disinfecting and sanitizing is the efficacy of the product against viruses. Disinfectants can be used to kill viruses, bacteria, mold, mildew and fungi. Sanitizers are only intended to kill bacteria and are not intended for use against viruses.  

At this point, some may be thinking, “I’ve seen products that are labeled as both a disinfectant and sanitizer.” And, you’re right. There are products that are both disinfectants and sanitizers. 

In short, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registers and regulates both disinfectants and sanitizers. They each must go through a certification process that tests them against certain pre-defined criteria. By law, a chemical cannot be labeled as a sanitizer or a disinfectant unless it has gone through EPA testing and received certification.  

Because disinfectants are designed to be more effective against a broader range of germs and organisms, they are subject to more rigorous EPA testing requirements and must clear a higher standard of effectiveness than surface sanitizing products.  

Many chemical products (which are intended to be disinfectants) are first tested as sanitizers because the guidelines are less stringent. Once it passes, the product is registered with the EPA as a sanitizer.  

The product can then undergo testing for disinfection. If passing, the product will then be labeled as both a sanitizer and disinfectant because it has been tested using both methods. The product must be used according to the manufacturer’s directions to either disinfect or sanitize.  

One last important differentiator between disinfectants and sanitizers is the areas for acceptable use. 

Disinfectants are not approved for use in food contact areas. Sanitizers, on the other hand, can be approved for use in food prep areas and on food contact surfaces. 

If a chemical product is labeled as a “food contact” or “food grade” sanitizer, it can be safely used to clean surfaces that come into contact with food. Food contact sanitizers should always be applied according to the manufacturer’s instructions. 

It’s important to recognize that not all sanitizers are food grade and approved for “food-contact” use. Always check with the chemical manufacturer’s guidelines for use.  

The Two-Step Process 

Both disinfecting and sanitizing are truly two-step processes. Similar to how “cleaning” does not kill germs, disinfecting and sanitizing do not “clean” surfaces. 

The surface must first be “cleaned” to remove any soil. If this step is skipped, germs can “hide” under soils and reduce the efficacy of the disinfectant or sanitizer.

The caveat to two-step disinfecting: Some disinfectant and sanitizer products can contain cleaning agents, so they are specifically designed to both clean/remove soils and inactivate germs on the surface. If cleaning teams are using a disinfectant or sanitizer with an added cleaning agent, the two-step process is combined and there is no need to clean and disinfect or sanitize with separate products. Always refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines for proper and effective use.  

Once a surface is cleaned, the disinfectant or sanitizer can be applied. To be effective at eliminating or lowering the number of germs, the product must “wet dwell” on the surface or object for the recommended amount of time.  

Aside from mistaking and/or using the terms cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting interchangeably, failing to properly adhere to the recommended dwell time is another common mistake in the maintenance world. Dwell time is critical to ensuring product efficacy. If the dwell time is not met, germs are left behind.  

Not only is the cleanliness of the facility at risk, but so is the health of guests and occupants — not to mention, the time the staff spent “cleaning” is actually wasted time and effort.  

What is Dwell Time? 

Dwell time is the amount of time a product (disinfectant or sanitizer, in this case) needs to remain wet on a surface to effectively disinfect or sanitize the surface.

Commercial cleaning chemicals have unique dwell times for each “kill” claim based on the EPA registration. A kill claim identifies the specific germ that a product is effective against. Not all disinfectants or sanitizers are the same. They each will have their own unique set of kill claims. For example, disinfectant Z might kill viruses A and B, while disinfectant X can kill viruses A, C, and D, but not B. 

On top of kill claim differences, the required contact time for each virus or organism can vary. For example, some disinfectants kill the Flu virus in five minutes while other disinfectants can kill the Flu virus in just one minute or less.

Commercial cleaning products which are not used with the proper dwell time and removal process are not effectively eliminating or lowering the number of germs, and fail to meet EPA requirements for efficacy. 

Whether managing a business, a school, a food service operation, or any other facility, the health and safety of the occupants is principle. 

Knowing the difference between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, along with when and how to properly perform each process for maximum efficacy is just one of the many ways professionals can elevate the cleanliness, health, and safety of the facility.  

Lauren Belskie is a major contributor and the primary editor for the Imperial Dade Learning Center, a platform designed to answer common questions, provide insights on trends and offer creative solutions to help businesses create safer, healthier and cleaner facilities. She is the Marketing Operations Manager at Imperial Dade, producing articles, videos, trainings, and other educational content targeted to the janitorial services market.