What is the Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting?
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HealthcareDecember 4, 2020

What is the Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting?

The emergence of diseases like COVID-19 has led to an increased focus on eliminating pathogens from environments. Yet, identifying a product that meets your necessary standards can be challenging: “Is “clean” good enough? Can a sanitizer be used? Or do you need a disinfectant?

While colloquially, “cleaning”, “sanitizing”, and “disinfecting” are often used interchangeably to describe the process of killing germs, these terms convey a very different standard when it comes to purchasing a product:

  • Cleaning refers to the process of removing dust, debris, dirt, and residue from any type of surface. “Cleaning” removes visible obstructions and debris. While it will not kill germs, it can reduce the number of them (Example: wiping up a spill with soap and water).
  • Sanitizing reduces the number and growth of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Unlike cleaning, sanitizing does reduce the number of germs present, but it does so less effectively than a disinfectant (Example: A hand sanitizer that kills up to 99.9% of germs on your skin).
  • Disinfecting is a process that kills microscopic organisms (germs, viruses, fungi) on surfaces. Disinfectants can be delivered via a variety of methods—such as spray and wipe, electrostatic sprayer, and dry fog—and destroy or inactivate bacteria, viruses, and pathogens (Example: HaloMist™).

In a nutshell, look to what John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, noted during a March 31, 2020, webinar: “Cleaning is getting the dirt out. Sanitizing is used in public health to get down to a certain level of bacteria—sometimes 95% is killed. Disinfection [kills] everything. That’s where you want to aim.”

When to Clean vs. When to Disinfect

When trying to determine whether to clean or disinfect, the answer is often that you need to do both. For example, if there is a blood spill in an operating room, the area needs to be both cleaned to remove the physical traces of blood and then disinfected to eliminate bloodborne pathogens that may remain on the surface. It’s critical to clean before disinfecting, as pathogens can remain under soils and be exposed later when the surface is wiped down.

When to Sanitize vs. When to Disinfect

When deciding between sanitizing or disinfecting a surface, it’s important to consider kill claims: a sanitizer has up to 3-log kill rate (99.9%) while a disinfectant must have a 4-log kill rate (99.99%) and can often have up to a 6-log rate (99.9999%). Utilizing a real-world example, if there were 1 million organisms on a surface, a disinfectant would leave only 1 to 100 of them viable. Conversely, a sanitizer would only reduce the number to 1,000 at the very best. Therefore, for environments that require a high standard of pathogen elimination, it is critical to use a true disinfectant.

How to Select a Disinfectant

Selecting the right disinfectant is an important task—but determining what product to use can be challenging. For instance, while bleach is often utilized by cleaning crews, it has the potential to be diluted improperly, can be dangerous to work with in high concentrations, creates lingering odors, and has a negative impact on the environment.

When searching for a disinfectant, consult the label to ensure it is registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For a consolidated record, you can search the EPA’s site for all registered products. The EPA’s List N includes products for use against SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19. However, COVID-19 is an enveloped virus, making it one of the most susceptible pathogens to disinfectants. For products that can kill even more resistant pathogens, consult the EPA’s List K of products approved for use against C. difficile—one of the most challenging pathogen types to kill.

Contact Halosil today to learn more about the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting, and to discuss if our Halo Disinfection System is right for your application.