Infection Prevention Essentials: Cleaning vs. Sanitizing vs. Disinfecting

We’re seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting remain top search topics, according to Google’s Coronavirus Search report. With everyone’s heightened focus on hygiene and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidance that disinfection will help prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s not surprising that many are looking for clarity on these topics. The terms are often used interchangeably, but semantics aside, they mean different things, and this article will explain the differences to help you develop the best disinfection plan.

What is the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting?


Cleaning a surface simply removes debris, dirt, and dust using soap and water. Cleaning is a necessary first step in the disinfection process because the debris, dirt, and dust provide a shield for the bacteria and viruses, ultimately reducing the efficacy of the disinfectant. However, cleaning will not destroy infectious fungi, bacteria, and viruses, which is why the CDC recommends disinfecting surfaces that are frequently touched by multiple people (i.e. tables, light switches, faucets). 


Sanitizing lowers the number of bacteria identified on the product’s label to a safe level as judged by public health standards. In the United States, sanitizers are agents that destroy 99.999 percent of bacteria in 30 seconds during the Official Detergent Sanitizer Test (a public health test).

According to the CDC, there are no sanitizer-only products with approved virus claims. For this reason, sanitizers do not qualify for inclusion on EPA’s List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19). If you’re trying to get rid of bacteria and viruses (for instance, during flu season or a coronavirus outbreak), you’ll want to disinfect rather than sanitize.  


Disinfecting uses a chemical, physical, or thermal agent to destroy germs (bacteria and viruses) not visible to the naked eye rather than simply reducing them and renders them incapable of reproducing. The CDC glossary defines disinfection as:

Thermal or chemical destruction of pathogenic and other types of microorganisms. Disinfection is less lethal than sterilization because it destroys most recognized pathogenic microorganisms but not necessarily all microbial forms (e.g., bacterial spores).

While there are different levels of disinfection, the CDC recommends developing a plan and using EPA-approved disinfectants. As you develop your infection prevention program, it’s important to understand the limits of manual disinfection and consider alternative ways to augment air and surface disinfection. 

For example, studies conducted by hospitals revealed that hospital cleaning staff regularly miss up to 49% of high-touch surfaces. Human error will always be part of manual disinfection which is why hospitals implemented a more layered approach and UV-C technology to strengthen disinfection protocols. So, what is UV-C technology?

UV-C disinfection technology

Over the past few decades, hospitals incorporated UV-C technology into their daily disinfection routine. UV-C is invisible light with a wavelength between 200nm and 280nm in wavelength. This light has special germicidal properties, which means that UV-C can inactivate microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and mold. It has been used since 1910 in wastewater treatment, and since the 1920s and 30s for air and surface disinfection.

UV-C damages the DNA and RNA of microorganisms and disrupts vital cellular functions, like replication, and prevents these microorganisms from infecting humans. The germicidal properties of UV-C have been studied, understood, and proven for over 100 years, and thousands of peer-reviewed studies proving efficacy have been published to date.

COVID-19 era requires a new infection prevention strategy

Creating safer environments is a priority for every business, school, and facility, and many are considering new technology to strengthen their disinfection protocols. Recognizing the limits and complexity of manual disinfection and augmenting those processes with the proven power of UV-C technology are essential first steps in developing an effective and responsible program for maintaining a safe environment.

We’re here to answer any questions you have about developing and implementing a layered approach to disinfection using the most powerful infection prevention tools and technologies.

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