What’s The Difference Between Cleaning vs. Disinfecting?

Two janitorial staff are cleaning a few office desks with a spray solution and yellow rag, and the other is moping the hardwood floors.
Cleaning vs. Disinfecting

“Cleaning is getting the dirt out,” while “sanitizing is what’s used…to get down to a certain level of bacteria”, says John Howard, Director, NIOSH. There can be a lot of confusion when it comes to cleaning vs. disinfecting. While these terms may be used interchangeably, they are vastly different in what they achieve. 

Let’s Clear Up the Basics First: Cleaning vs. Disinfecting vs. Sanitizing

What is Cleaning?

Cleaning is the process of physically removing dirt, grime, and impurities from surfaces. It typically involves the use of water, detergents, or other cleaning agents to break down and wash away contaminants.

The primary goal of cleaning is to create a visibly clean space, free from dirt, dust, and debris. This process is essential in maintaining a pleasant and hygienic environment for people to work and live in. 

For businesses, regular cleaning helps to create a professional and welcoming atmosphere for both employees and customers. While cleaning can help eliminate harmful pathogens, it is not as thorough as sanitizing or disinfecting. 

What is Sanitizing?

Sanitizing is a process that reduces the number of harmful microorganisms on surfaces and objects. This process aims to lower them to a safe and acceptable level as defined by public health standards.

It is an intermediate step between cleaning and disinfecting, combining elements of both processes. Sanitizing typically involves the use of specialized agents that are less potent than disinfectants but still effective at reducing potential pathogens. 

Proper sanitization practices are essential at facilities where complete disinfection may not be feasible but reducing contamination is still crucial – examples include food service establishments and childcare facilities.

What is Disinfecting? 

Disinfecting involves the application of chemicals that can kill or inactivate harmful microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi on surfaces. Disinfectants are specifically formulated to destroy or irreversibly inactivate these pathogens. 

The primary goal of disinfecting is to nearly eliminate the risk of infection and the spread of pathogens. Some establishments require disinfection over sanitation if there is a high risk associated with contamination – such as hospitals and medical research centers.

Disinfecting may also be used to eliminate harmful artificial chemicals from surfaces to prevent them from spreading beyond containment. Many research laboratories and chemical processing plants employ such disinfection measures. 

In certain cases, disinfecting may be favored over sanitation in typically lower risk establishments. For example, a restaurant can typically get by with sanitization but may favor disinfection while serving someone with food allergies.  

Cleaning vs. Disinfecting: What’s the Difference? 

The main differences between cleaning and disinfecting lie in their goals, methods, and the substances used. Cleaning focuses on removing visible dirt, grime, and impurities, while disinfecting targets harmful microorganisms invisible to the naked eye

However, it’s not unusual for a business to use both processes.

Cleaning is an essential first step before disinfecting. It helps to remove organic material that can interfere with the effectiveness of disinfectants. However, cleaning alone is not enough to eliminate all microscopic pathogens, especially on high-touch surfaces. 

You may also want to employ cleaning methods, sanitation methods, and disinfection methods to various parts of your building. For example, you may want to clean your desks, sanitize your bathrooms, and disinfect your kitchenette. 

Integrating these three processes into a routine maintenance program is essential for ensuring a safe environment. It’s also essential to select appropriate cleaning and disinfecting products, and to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for use.

More resources you might like:

  1. Cleaning Verification vs. Validation
  2. Alternatives to an ATP Cleaning Verification System
  3. What to Know About Commercial Cleaning Certifications.

Are You Cleaning, Disinfecting, and Sanitizing Effectively? 

Cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are complementary processes that together provide a complete solution for maintaining a clean and hygienic environment. 

Optisolve’s precision cleaning solutions allow cleaning teams to assess surfaces for contamination, validate cleaning practices, and maintain sites optimally. 

Book a demo to reveal contamination you may have been missing.