Clean vs. Sanitize vs. Disinfect

Did I just clean, sanitize, or disinfect? That is the question and a very important one during our pandemic.

When it comes to cleaning, the words sanitize and disinfect are often used interchangeably by many, even those in the cleaning industry. The truth is there are significant differences in the meaning of these terms. Knowing these differences will help you to choose the correct cleaning product, and cleaning company, to safely maintain your environments at home and at work.

Those in the cleaning industry rely on three main governmental agencies to organize consistent terminology and cleaning definitions. They are the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Center for Disease Control (CDC) to bring it all together including best practices.

The Differing Terms:

The general term “cleaning” refers to the removal of dirt and other impurities from a surface. The terms sanitizing and disinfecting are sub-cleaning terms that describe the type of cleaning done.

According to the EPA, a sanitizer must reduce bacteria on a surface by at least 99.9 percent. On the other hand, a disinfectant must kill 99.999 percent of germs on a surface. This may seem like a very small technical difference as they both are effective in general cleaning, but that small difference is important. I think we can all agree that we would rather kill the virus COVID-19 than reduce it on a surface.



To complicate things, even more, there are several types of sanitizers and disinfectants. Alcohol, Bleach, Quaternary Ammonium, Hypochlorite, Accelerated Hydrogen Peroxide, Phenolics, or Peracetic Acids. On March 13, 2020, the EPA published List N:  Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2.  List N includes products that meet EPA’s criteria for use against SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19.  This list includes products with emerging viral pathogen claims and those with human coronavirus claims. You can view the list here All products that claim to be a disinfectant will have an EPA registration number on the label and can be verified on their website.

Unlike EPA registered disinfectants, FDA regulated products, such as antimicrobial handwashes or antibacterial hand sanitizers do not undergo viral efficacy testing at the agency. The FDA assumes the active ingredients have antimicrobial activity. Responsible manufacturers self-verify their formula’s efficacy against a list of 26 organisms including bacteria, yeast, and mold. This list of organisms is only recommended by the FDA.

The CDC is responsible for working with state and local agencies to monitor health threats. They also implement measures to prevent outbreaks. The CDC is also responsible for educating the public on health issues and maintaining medical statistics. This includes proper cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting protocols.

So check the n-list link above and go to the CDC website for cleaning protocol. Wash your hands with hand-sanitizer and disinfect your surfaces with an EPA registered disinfectant.

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