May 20, 2020

Sanitising, Cleaning and Disinfecting: What’s the Difference

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We are currently living in very uncertain times, the pandemic is dominating our lives and with so many unanswered questions and lack of clarity around cleaning effectiveness, it’s hard to know what should and shouldn’t be being done.

There is one certain thing and that is to not underestimate the power of cleaning. Which leads us on to the question we are looking to help answer within this article.

Cleaning, sanitising and disinfecting, is there any difference? What do these terms mean?

It’s an important point to get clear in your mind and we will be drawing on reliable sources to provide you with a strong distinction as to the difference. Because they are all different.


Before we jump into explaining the difference, it’s good to understand what we are including when we talk about germs throughout this article. Germs in this context include viruses, bacteria, and other microbes.


First off, we will cover the meaning of cleaning. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):

“Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surface or objects. Cleaning works by using soap (or detergent) and water to physically remove germs from surfaces. This process does not necessarily kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.”

The key element here is to understand that cleaning does not necessarily kill germs, but it removes them through a cleaning process.


Sanitising is a step up from cleaning and kills certain bacteria within a specific period. The purpose of sanitising is to “lower the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level, as judged by public health standards or requirements” (CDC). This process typically involves cleaning with a sanitiser with the ultimate goal to lower the risk of the infection spreading. Sanitisers reduce bacteria on a surface relatively quickly, usually within 30 seconds.

Typically, sanitisers are used for food preparation areas and surfaces, kitchen utensils and objects and surfaces that children come into close contact with.


Finally, we have disinfecting surfaces. This is designed to kill a certain range of bacteria, viruses, mildews and fungi in a specific period. “Disinfecting works by using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces or objects. This process does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, but by killing germs on a surface after cleaning, it can further lower the risk of spreading infection.” (CDC). Whilst sanitising is a relatively quick process as highlighted in the previous section, disinfection usually takes longer and that’s why it’s extremely important to check the dwell time of the disinfectant before it is applied. Disinfectant is generally used on surfaces within hospital rooms, washroom and toilet areas that would tend to come into contact with body fluids.

It is also used when specifically looking to try and disinfect certain viruses. Unless otherwise stated, you would look to use a disinfectant, with the correct certifications, when deep cleaning after a norovirus outbreak, for example, to further lower the risk of the infection spreading.

So when should we sanitise and when should we disinfect?

As with most things, there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer here but in short, both sanitising and disinfecting will reduce germs on the surface and limit cross-contamination.

Disinfecting kills more germs than sanitising does and therefore slightly more effective, but ultimately it comes down to what you are trying to remove or kill and the speed in which you want it to act.

It’s important though to never underestimate the power there is in cleaning alone and always remember for optimum results, clean first and then sanitise or disinfect second. It is a two-step process.

Which leads us onto our final, most important point…

Ensure you understand dwell times

Both disinfectants and sanitisers will require a dwell time for them to be effective, and these must be adhered to. If there is not time then increase the teams capacity, so that there is or find a product that works effectively in less time.

Ignoring dwell times will render the product ineffective against what you are trying to remove or kill, so clearly a pointless exercise.

The dwell time is printed on both the product label so always check it and if you are in doubt contact your provider.

So in summary

Make sure you understand the difference between these three methods. As a general rule cleaning removes dirt, sanitising kills certain bacteria, disinfecting kills certain bacteria, viruses, fungi and mildew.

Then figure out what you need within your facility and what you have, are the products you use, doing what you want them to or are inadequate? And don’t forget your dwell times.

If you would like guidance around what product selection is best for your facility then get in contact.

Sanitising, Cleaning and Disinfecting: What’s the Difference