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Disinfecting vs. Sanitizing

woman spraying
Disinfecting and sanitizing don't mean the same thing. Justin Paget/Getty Images

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Say you've got a big mess on your hands. You've had some food spill in your kitchen, and you need to decide on a product and method to clean up so you get rid of any potentially hazardous germs. Should you sanitize or disinfect? What's the difference between the two anyway?

You might be surprised to learn that, even though people tend to use the terms interchangeably, there's a legal difference. In the United States, sanitizers are agents that destroy 99.999 percent of bacteria in 30 seconds during the Official Detergent Sanitizer Test (a public health test). A good way to understand the logic behind this test is to think of a bartender washing glasses. He'll have to kill as many germs as possible in a short time to be able to put the glasses away quickly.

On the other hand, disinfectants are products that destroy all organisms (including infectious fungi and bacteria) in 10 minutes during the AOAC Use Dilution Test, a test regulated by the EPA to determine the efficiency of disinfectants. In a hospital situation it's more important to kill all germs even if it takes longer rather than to kill most of them quickly.

Here's how the CDC explains the differences:

Cleaning only removes visible dirt and germs from surfaces. Usually you use soap and water for this. You're not necessarily killing germs but by removing them physically, you're lowering their number and your risk of infection.

Disinfecting uses chemicals to destroy germs not visible to the naked eye rather than simply reducing them. The procedure may not necessarily clean a dirty surface, but by disinfecting it, you reduce the risk of infection. You might disinfect areas where you change a baby's diaper. Hospitals disinfect areas that have come into contact with blood or other body fluids.

Sanitizing lowers the number of germs to a safe level as judged by public health standards. It can involve either cleaning or disinfecting (or both). Usually you sanitize in kitchens and other areas that come into contact with food. For example, you sanitize dishes and utensils after using them. You may also sanitize toys that children put in their mouths.

If you're trying to get rid of bacteria and viruses (for instance during flu season or a coronavirus outbreak), you'll want to disinfect rather than sanitize. EPA-approved sanitizers only take care of bacteria, while EPA-approved disinfectants kill both bacteria and viruses.

On the next page we'll talk about how to disinfect and sanitize using bleach.

To sanitize or disinfect in your home, you generally start with bleach and cool water in a bucket (hot water decreases effectiveness). Wear rubber gloves to protect your hands. Make sure that you're using a bleach concentration appropriate for household rather than industrial use. Concentrations of 5.25 percent or 6 percent hypochlorite are safe for use in the house.

If you're sanitizing, use 1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 gallon of water (or 1 teaspoon to 1 quart). Transfer the solution to a spray bottle and spray the item you want to sanitize (or dip from the bucket and wipe the item with paper towels). Leave the solution on the area for at least one minute before rinsing. This solution can be used on toys, eating utensils and objects that will come into contact with mouths.

If you're disinfecting, mix 1/3 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water or 4 teaspoons to a quart. Since this concentration is stronger, use it only to disinfect areas that will not have contact with food or mouths – like changing tables, potty chairs, hospital areas and floors. You also should expose the area to bleach solution for a longer period of time. As we mentioned earlier, the official test for disinfecting mandates that all germs must be killed in 10 minutes, but usually an exposure of two to three minutes is enough.

Note: Bleach solutions are only good for 24 hours.

Last editorial update on Jun 17, 2020 05:57:32 pm.

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Sources

  • ALLQA Products. "Sanitizing with Bleach." (June 26, 2012). http://www.allqa.com/ChlorineSanitizing.htm
  • Antimicrobial Laboratories. "AOAC Use Dilution Test." (June 26, 2012). http://www.antimicrobialtestlaboratories.com/AOAC_Use_Dilution_Test_for_Disinfectants.htm
  • Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department. "Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting." June 2008. (June 11, 2012). http://hennepin.us/files/HennepinUS/HSPHD/Public%20Health%20Protection/Epidemiology/Daycare%20Manual/1085_s2aclean.pdf
  • Maryland Public Schools. "General Sanitation Guidelines." (June 26, 2012). http://www.marylandpublicschools.org/NR/rdonlyres/5FCFA874-2853-4247-ACC4-F11196C07F93/10596/GeneralSanitationGuidelines.pdf
  • Hillyard: The Cleaning Resource. "Disinfectants Vs. Sanitizers." (June 15, 2012). http://www.hillyard.com/ProductsServices/UniversityofHillyard/Disvsant.htm
  • National Food Service Management Institute. "Food Safety Grab and Go Lesson." (June 11, 2012). http://www.nfsmi.org/documentlibraryfiles/PDF/20100917025848.pdf
  • NCRKids. "Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards." (june 11, 2012). http://nrckids.org/CFOC3/HTMLVersion/AppendixJ.pdf

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