Skip to main content

Clean, Sanitize or Disinfect. Do You Know the Difference?

The Come Clean Blog


how to disinfectant

It’s full on winter, and we’re spending more time indoors where cold and flu viruses are easily transmitted.  Cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing can help slow the spread.  Many of us use these terms interchangeably – but do you know the difference?  Knowing the difference between them can help determine what cleaning products to buy, and how to use them in order to keep your home a clean and safe environment  — and it can mean getting a better, deeper clean where you need it most.

Cleaning removes dirt, dust, and grime from surfaces or objects.  It physically removes germs from the surface reducing the germ count – but it doesn’t necessarily kill the germs.  Since it removes some of the germs, there are fewer of them left to spread infection.  Depending on the mess, soap and water, or hard surfaces spray cleaners like JAWS Multi-Purpose Cleaner are used to clean surfaces that are visibly soiled so they look better, smell better and may possibly decrease the likelihood of getting sick.  

Sanitizing reduces the number of germs to a safer level. We often associate sanitizing with food preparation and cleanup.  For example, use the dishwasher to sanitize the dishes or antibacterial and disinfectant wipes to sanitize countertops and door handles. 

To be considered a sanitizer, a product must reduce bacteria on a surface by at least 99.9 percent according to the EPA.  Sanitizing is a bit gentler than disinfecting, and is used on surfaces that shouldn’t come into contact with powerful chemicals such as cooking tools, cutting boards, and other food prep surfaces as well as toys that children put in their mouths.   Sanitizing decreases, but does not necessarily eliminate, the amount of bacteria on the surfaces.  EPA-approved sanitizers only carry claims for bacteria, not viruses.

A simple water and bleach solution can be used as a sanitizer or a disinfectant, depending on the concentration of bleach in the solution. Solutions with higher concentrations of bleach will disinfectant, while lower concentrations are more likely to sanitize.

Disinfecting kills the germs on surfaces.  Disinfectants contain chemicals that actually kill germs (viruses and bacteria) and kills more germs than sanitizers do.  According to EPA standards, a disinfectant (JAWS Disinfectant Cleaner) must kill 99.999% of germs, compared to 99.9% for sanitizers. While this difference might seem minimal, it can make a huge difference in reducing the spread of infection.

Typically, you need to allow the disinfectant to remain wet on the surface for a specified period to be effective according the the label instructions ( typically from 3 to ten 10 minutes).  Disinfecting alone does not always clean a dirty surface, you may need to clean the surface first to remove dirt and grime and then follow up with a Disinfectant to kill the remaining germs.   Unlike many disinfectants, JAWS Disinfectant Cleaner cleans AND disinfects in one timesaving step.  

Disinfectants are regulated by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are required to have a manufacturer’s label that lists the chemicals that are “active ingredients”, explains how to use them, and provides safety instructions.  It is important to read the label before using any disinfectant to know what organisms (germs) it kills, how long to leave it set before you wipe it off, and if you should rinse the surface after you disinfect.  Always follow the label instructions on cleaning products and disinfectants. 

Sanitize or Disinfect?  When deciding whether to sanitize or disinfect, you want to use a more powerful agent for disinfecting than you would for sanitizing.  Disinfecting is for bigger “messes” particularly where surfaces have been contaminated with bodily fluids.  If a member of your household is sick, it’s best to use a disinfectant rather than sanitizer.  Disinfectants have claims against both bacteria and viruses, while sanitizers only have claims for bacteria.   You'll want to disinfect toilets and sinks that can come into contact with dangerous bacteria and other high-touch areas like door-knobs and faucets.

When you’re doing a routine clean, you’re fine using an all-purpose cleaner to wipe away dirt and grime. If you need something stronger, knowing the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting can help you decide what to use.  At best, you'll prevent germs from spreading  - at the very least, you’re using the right vocabulary terms.