Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting

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Written by: Patrick Haile

What’s the Difference? Let’s start with the definitions, so that we are all clear on what cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are.

Cleaning – is the process of removing unwanted substances, such as dirt, infectious agents, and other impurities, from an object or environment. Cleaning deals heavily with use of surfactants. Surfactants attach and lift soil out of surfaces.

Sanitizing – is the process of reducing the growth of bacteria so that a surface can be deemed hyenic from a public health perspective. Though sanitization is present in many different industries, the sewage and food service industries capitalize on sanitization the most.

Disinfecting – is the process by which one frees a surface from infection by destroying harmful microorganisms. This includes bacteria and viruses. Disinfectants must be 99.999% effective to be considered disinfectants.

Now that we know the goal of each process—let’s talk about when cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are appropriate!

Cleaning is always appropriate and generally should be done at the highest frequency. I cannot stress enough that cleaning (i.e. removing soil from surfaces) also removes bacteria and viruses. Cleaning does not kill microorganisms, but it removes a significant percentage of them. That being said, most sanitizers and disinfectants do not work well if there is heavy soil on a surface. Surfaces need to be cleaned before sanitizers and disinfectants are applied.

Sanitizing is most appropriate where bacteria need to be reduced significantly. In order for a sanitizer to be considered effective, it must kill 99.9% of microorganisms in 30 seconds. This process is mostly used on surfaces in the food service industry.

Disinfecting is most appropriate on surfaces that are touched most frequently. There are instances where a whole room might need to be disinfected top to bottom, but from an everyday standpoint only areas that come in contact with human or animal matter need to be disinfected. This includes but is not limited to knobs/handles, water fountains, paper dispensers, toilets, and desks.

Disinfection processes can and should differ from location to location. A hospital would arguably need the highest level of disinfection as opposed to a recycling plant where high levels of disinfection would be a waste of time and money. Kindergarten and daycare centers often have high frequency protocols for disinfection.

Practical Application: Flu season in late 2017 into early 2018 was arguably one of the worst the United States had experienced in years. The vaccine was largely ineffective and public schools saw attendance rates drop as much as 20% for small periods of time. Using the formerly mentioned information of the differences between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting—a church preschool in Rock Hill was able to maintain the vast majority of their student body through flu season. At most the preschool was at a loss for 1-2%.

The following is their flu season disinfection protocol:

  • Clean and wipe all surfaces with multipurpose cleaner, including restrooms.
  • Use a food grade sanitizer on tables, shelves, and large toys.
  • Use hospital grade disinfectant on touch points, restrooms, and at the users’ discretion.
  • If bodily fluids come in contact with a surface during school hours, see bodily fluid protocol for flu season. (Number 4 would require the writing of a whole new article)

This is the extent of the protocol. These duties are typically performed by only one or two people at this specific location. A small portion of the building is basically cleaned twice every day. One might think ‘wow that’s a great deal of work for two people’. This is true, so here’s a secret. The location in question uses an Electrostatic Sprayer to aid in the delivery of their disinfectants and sanitizers. Instead of tackling the preschool room by room the cleaners use the sprayer to quickly administer their chemicals. This saves them time and energy and this time and energy is used elsewhere in the facility.

Hopefully the differences between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfection are now apparent. Cleaning must be done before sanitizing and disinfecting, and cleaning can physically remove microorganisms from surfaces. Sanitizing is most appropriate for areas where bacteria need to be reduced and disinfecting needs to be done frequently and especially on surfaces that are touched often. Feel free to use this information in writing your own disinfection protocol! It just might come and in handy next time we have a particularly hard flu season.


Patrick Haile has been involved in the cleaning industry for 7 years. He is currently an Account Manager, specializing in the oversight of Educational and Religious accounts.