The Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting

For deep spring cleaning, base your approach—cleaning vs. sanitizing vs. disinfecting—on the goal. Then clean with the right products in the most effective order. We've got tips on getting rid of germs and keeping your home clean and safe.

The Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting
© istockphoto

By Glenda Taylor, Bob Vila

There’s no better time than spring to clean a house from top to bottom. Clearing away the dust, dirt, and crumbs that accumulate is one thing; if you’re trying to reduce the risk of harmful bacteria and viruses that contribute to the average flu or coronavirus, you’ll need to do some deeper cleaning. Although cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting all are related, the terms are not interchangeable. Keep reading to find out how these cleaning methods differ and how you can use the right cleaners and techniques to keep your house clean and healthy.



Clean with different goals in mind.

Your home might look spotless, but invisible germs can be lying in wait to infect the next person who comes into contact with them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s important to understand the difference between “cleaning,” “disinfecting,” and “sanitizing” so your home looks impeccable, and is a healthy environment where your family can go about their daily tasks without worrying they might pick up the latest disease that’s making the rounds.

Cleaning removes visible dirt, grime, and impurities from floors, cabinets, and all other household surfaces.

The most basic of all housework chores, it includes such tasks as vacuuming, doing the dishes, dusting, washing windows, and the wide variety of household chores that keep your home looking fresh and clean.

Products used to clean include, but are not limited to:
  • All-purpose kitchen or bathroom cleaner
  • Dishwasher detergent
  • Furniture polish
  • Floor cleaner
  • Baking soda and homemade cleaners

Disinfecting kills germs using chemicals that have been proven to destroy viruses, bacteria, or other microorganisms.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the chemicals that are designed to disinfect, and an EPA-approved disinfectant will bear an EPA registration number so buyers can be confident they’re using an approved product. If a product is marketed as a “germicide,” a “disinfectant,” or if the label claims it “kills germs,” it must bear an EPA registration number, which typically is found near the bottom of the label. The number assures you that the product will kill germs, but a single disinfectant won’t kill all germs, so check the product’s label to see which ones it will destroy, such as viruses or bacteria.

Disinfectant products can include one or more of the following germ-killing ingredients on their labels:
  • Chlorine bleach
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Formaldehyde
  • Glutaraldehyde
  • Phenol

Sanitizing is the process of reducing germs on surfaces to meet public health standards.

Sanitizing includes using a sanitizer to wipe down children’s toys in a preschool setting or to wipe down tables in a restaurant. This process has a lot in common with disinfecting, but sanitizing products need not bear an EPA registration number. Instead, in the food service industry, if the word “sanitizer” appears on a product’s label, it must meet the EPA requirement of reducing the total number of organisms by 99.999 percent within 30 seconds. If intended for use in the home, a sanitizer should kill 99.9 percent of organisms within five minutes. The individual product will specify where and how to use it for the best results.

Sanitizing products include:
  • Hand sanitizers
  • Liquid sanitizers that do not contain cleaners, intended for use after a surface has been cleaned
  • Cleaning products that bear the term “sanitize” on their label



Thoroughly clean surfaces of dirt, grime, and spills before disinfecting or sanitizing.

Disinfectants and sanitizers are not intended to clean, so when they’re used on dirty surfaces they’re less effective because germs can hide in messes like leftover food debris. Use a cleaning product to remove visible dirt and grime from a surface first, and then apply a disinfectant or sanitizer as directed on the label. Depending on the active ingredients, a disinfecting product might need to stay on a surface for up to 10 minutes to ensure it destroys all germs.

The exception to the above process is when you need to disinfect often, such as during a virus outbreak. In this instance, keeping the house free of dirt and debris still is important, but you don’t have to vacuum and dust every time you disinfect. For example, during a disease outbreak, keep a container of disinfecting wipes in the kitchen and every bathroom and wipe down faucets, drawer pulls, and doorknobs every time a family member touches them. Clean other surfaces as needed and then disinfect or sanitize after cleaning.



Adjust the cleaning process when a family member is ill.

If, despite your best cleaning and disinfecting efforts, a family member becomes ill, that’s the time to focus on keeping other household members from becoming ill. Follow the recommended cleaning/disinfecting/sanitizing order on a daily basis for the home in general, and wipe down frequently touched objects often. Do not, however, use the same cleaning routine in the rooms used by the sick family member.

  • Separate the sick individual. The ill person should remain in a separate bedroom and use a separate bathroom if at all possible to keep germs contained until after the illness.
  • Regularly clean and disinfect shared surfaces, but not immediately. When the family must share a bathroom, the CDC recommends waiting as long as possible after the ill person uses it before cleaning and disinfecting. By waiting an hour or longer, you give airborne germs a chance to settle, making it less likely that someone will inhale them. No one else should use the bathroom before it’s cleaned and disinfected. When you clean it, follow the recommended cleaning/disinfecting/sanitizing order and pay special attention when disinfecting.
  • Clean personal spaces after the illness passes. After your loved one recovers, thoroughly clean the bedroom where the ill person stayed (and personal bathroom, if applicable).
The Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting
© demaerre / Getty Images

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