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  • Writer's pictureMike Roberts

Cleaning, Sanitizing and Disinfecting: The Important Differences

We all know cleaning helps reduce our risk of illness, but do you know the distinction between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting? Here’s a primer on the important differences.

Clean first

The first step in either sanitizing or disinfecting is to clean the surface, which means removing visible dirt. The Centers for Disease Control say that cleaning alone is generally enough to protect your family from illness unless someone in the household is sick. Cleaning may wash away some bacteria and viruses, but it won’t kill them. Cleaning is also an important first step before sanitizing and disinfecting because dirt on a surface may prevent a chemical sanitizer or disinfectant from working as it should.


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines sanitizing as killing 99.9 percent of bacteria on surfaces. Importantly, however, sanitizing does not kill viruses, which cause colds, respiratory syncytial virus, flu and Covid-19. You can use a chemical sanitizer on the hard surfaces in your home. You can sanitize dishes without chemicals by running your dishwasher on its sanitizing cycle and clothing by using the same setting on your washer. Steam cleaning is a good method for sanitizing porous items such as carpets and upholstery.


The EPA says that proper disinfection will kill virtually any illness-causing germs, including viruses. It’s advisable to disinfect surfaces when a family member is sick or immunocompromised. Experts advise not to disinfect when it’s unnecessary because overdoing it can actually strengthen bacteria, leading to the development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

To properly disinfect, it’s vital to leave chemical disinfectants in contact with the surface as long as the manufacturer recommends. The surface should remain wet throughout that time.

Make sure there’s sufficient ventilation when you use a disinfectant. Don’t mix disinfectants with other cleaning products.

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