Sanitize vs. Disinfect: What's the Difference?

And what about sterilize? Learn the meaning behind these common cleaning terms.

When it comes to cleaning, the words sanitize and disinfect are often used interchangeably. But in actuality there's a significant difference between the two terms. Knowing the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting can help you to know exactly what cleaning products to buy, and how to use them in order to keep your home a clean and safe environment.

We looked at what the experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had to say on the subject. Keep reading to learn the difference between the sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing.

Sanitize vs. Disinfect

While cleaning refers to simply removing dirt and other impurities from a surface, sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing all go far beyond this to eliminate harmful bacteria. Knowing the difference between these deep cleaning terms helps us to safely and effectively use our cleaning products.

According to the CDC, sanitizing refers to lowering the number of germs on a surface to a safe level, "as judged by public health standards or requirements." This process works either through cleaning (which physically removes germs from surfaces) or disinfecting (which kills germs). Sanitizing is generally a little more gentle than disinfecting.

So while sanitizing refers to lowering the number of germs to a safe level by either cleaning or disinfecting, disinfecting itself refers to killing nearly 100 percent of germs on surfaces or objects, according to the CDC. This works by using chemicals to kill germs. Disinfecting doesn't necessarily clean dirty surfaces, but it does kill germs, helping to lower the risk of infection.

When to Sanitize

It's best to sanitize surfaces that don't normally come into contact with dangerous bacteria, or those that are best cleaned without powerful chemicals. For example, cooking tools or children's toys would be best for sanitization, as you don't want those coming into contact with powerful chemicals.

What Is Considered a Sanitizer?

In order to be considered a sanitizer (like this $5 Amazon bestseller), a product must reduce bacteria on a surface by at least 99.9 percent, according to the EPA. A simple water and bleach solution can be a sanitizer or a disinfectant, depending on the concentration of bleach in the solution. Solutions with higher concentrations of bleach will be a disinfectant, while lower concentrations are more likely to be a sanitizer.

When to Disinfect

Unlike sanitizing, disinfecting won't be a super common part of your cleaning routine. It's really meant for serious messes like those involving bodily fluids, making it more common in medical settings.

What does it mean for your household cleaning? You'll likely want to disinfect things like toilets or sinks that can come into contact with dangerous bacteria. You'll also want to disinfect high-touch areas like door-knobs and faucets. Overuse of disinfectants can lead to harmful health and environmental consequences.

What Is Considered a Disinfectant?

According to EPA standards, a disinfectant (like this bestselling hospital-grade disinfectant) must kill 99.999 percent of germs, compared to 99.9 percent for sanitizers. While this difference might seem minimal, it can make a huge difference in reducing the spread of infection.

Is Bleach a Sanitizer or Disinfectant?

Bleach can be used as a disinfectant or a sanitizer, depending on how concentrated the bleach solution is. It all comes down to how much it's diluted. Its active ingredient, sodium hypochlorite, is effective in killing bacteria, fungus, and viruses. Refer to the instructions on the packaging for how to dilute bleach. And remember, never mix bleach with ammonia or any other cleaner.

And What About Sterilizing?

Sterilization is an entirely different beast, and it's not something the average person will need to do in their home. According to the CDC, sterilization is the process of destroying or eliminating all forms of microbial life.

It's often carried out in health-care facilities using physical or chemical methods including: steam under pressure, dry heat, EtO gas, hydrogen peroxide gas plasma, and liquid chemicals. These extreme forms of decontamination are necessary for things like surgery, or in certain environments like laboratories or hospitals.

The main difference between the two is disinfection is the process of eliminating all harmful microorganisms, while sterilization is the process of killing all microorganisms.


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