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What's the Difference in Sanitizing, Cleaning, Disinfecting & Sterilizing

It is more important now than ever to understand how to properly protect yourself from infection. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion around which cleaning methods are and aren’t appropriate.

People tend to use the terms cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting and sterilizing interchangeably, but there are distinct differences between all four. Read on to learn which methods you should be using.

What is Cleaning?

Cleaning is the process of removing visible dirt, dust and other soils from surfaces. It is typically completed with a cloth or wipe in conjunction with a detergent, soap or solvent.

Cleaning on its own does not kill or thoroughly remove bacteria or viruses from surfaces, but it is still essential. Cleaning should always be performed before sanitizing, disinfecting and sterilizing because it improves the effectiveness of each process.

What is Sanitizing?

Sanitizing reduces the amount of bacteria on a surface, but does not kill or destroy bacteria. Sanitizing also does not kill or destroy viruses from surfaces. Rather, it lowers the amount of bacteria on a surface to a safe level as judged by public health standards.

Sanitizers are often used on food contact surfaces because they contain less harsh chemicals in comparison to disinfectants. However, always check the label to verify that the sanitizer you are using is in fact food safe if you are using it in a kitchen or food prep area.

What is Disinfecting?

Disinfecting kills or inactivates both the bacteria and viruses identified on the product’s label on surfaces. Disinfectants are the only products approved by the EPA to kill viruses on hard surfaces.

Disinfecting is one of the most reliable ways to stop the spread of infection and germs, but not all disinfectants are created equal. Right now the world is battling a virus we’ve never encountered before, aka an emerging pathogen. Only disinfectants with emerging pathogen claims should be used to disinfect against COVID-19. These disinfectants can be found on the EPA’s N-List.

Although sanitizers are more frequently used on food contact surfaces, disinfectants can be used, but they must contain food safe chemicals. For example, EarthSafe’s PUR-TABS which we use with our electrostatic disinfection devices are safe to use in kitchens and on food contact surfaces.

Disinfecting is performed in a variety of circumstances, especially now as we battle COVID-19, but it is especially important in hospitals and other medical facilities.

What is Sterilizing?

Sterilizing destroys or eliminates all forms of microbial life, not just bacteria or viruses. Sterilizing isn’t something the average person will need to do in their home. It is most common in surgical rooms and laboratories.

Let’s Summarize

Cleaning – removes dirt, dust and other soils from surfaces.

Sanitizing – removes bacteria from surfaces.

Disinfecting – kills harmful bacteria and viruses from surfaces.

Sterilizing – kills all microorganisms from surfaces.

The right products alone won’t equate to desired results. Products must be paired with the right methods. For example, the correct dwell time, the correct dilution and the appropriate equipment. Have questions? Leave a comment below!

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