Cleaning vs. Sanitizing vs. Disinfecting

Nichols Corporate CleaningThe current COVID-19 pandemic the world is currently facing, it is now more important than ever to understand the difference between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting. Many people use these terms interchangeably, but they are all very different.

The easiest way to remember the difference is:

  • Cleaning = Removing Soil
  • Sanitizing = Reducing Germs
  • Disinfecting = Killing Germs


Definition: the removal of visible soil, debris, microorganisms and organic substances from surfaces; will not eliminate germs but reduces their numbers by removing some contaminated matter.

Cleaning is used to remove dirt, allergens and microorganisms from a surface to help remove soil and germs that can lead to infection. Cleaning is necessary and should always be the first step in the process. Even when you intend to sanitize or disinfect the area, you must first remove visible dirt, dust, and debris using a cloth or wipe in conjunction with a detergent, solvent or soap.


Definition: the reduction of bacteria to safe levels (set by public health standards) to decrease the risk of infection; may not kill all viruses.

Going a step beyond cleaning, sanitization kills a greater amount of bacteria. Sanitizing is meant to reduce, not kill, the occurrence and growth of bacteria, viruses and fungi.

You’re probably thinking, “But wait, my hand sanitizer says Kills Most Germs.” According to the CDC definition, a sanitizer is a chemical that kills 99.999% of the specific test bacteria in 30 seconds under the conditions of the test. Therefore, while sanitizers can remove a majority of certain kinds of bacteria, sanitization techniques and products alone cannot eliminate all viruses.


Definition: the elimination of pathogens and disease-causing microorganisms, except bacterial spores.

Disinfection is appropriate for frequently touched surfaces and surfaces likely to harbor pathogens. Disinfecting a surface means that chemicals are being used to kill germs. Disinfecting does not necessarily mean that dirt, germs, and impurities are being removed from the surface (which is why cleaning first is important), but by killing the germs, the risk of spreading infection is lowered.

The key difference between sanitizing and disinfecting is the type of chemical involved and the length of time it is left on a surface. Be sure to read instructions on the chemical product to ensure proper disinfection (kill claims and dwell times).

Now that we know the proper terms and when we should be sanitizing vs. disinfecting, let’s remember these tips from the CDC for preventing the spread of coronavirus:

  1. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water.
  2. Avoid touching your face.
  3. Stay home if you’re sick.
  4. Practice social distancing (6ft away, avoid crowds, avoid touching).
  5. Use hand sanitizer when soap and water is not available.
  6. Use disinfecting wipes and sprays on frequently-touched surfaces (door handles, faucets, shopping carts, etc.)

Stay safe and healthy.