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What’s the Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting?

Cleaning Sanitizing and Disinfecting Products


There is a difference – and a very important one at that! And it only took a pandemic to admit that I fully did not understand the definition of each. According to an internal office poll, less than 50% of respondents could accurately articulate the difference. We are returning to the workplace with a responsibility to keep each other safe and not confuse these terms for the result can be poor cleaning practices.

Kimberly-Clark enlightened us in their hygiene improvement playbook that the workplace is a habitat for germs and it’s important for us to know what we are up against:

  • The average desk has 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. Stop it I eat my lunch there.
  • Keyboards harbor 8,900 bacteria per keyboard. How many if I haven’t wiped down my keyboard this entire year?
  • Mobile phones harbor 6,300 bacteria per phone. “Dad can I watch a show on your phone?” As a father this one hits home in particular.
  • In the span of 24 hours, the average adult touches 7,200 surfaces and touches their face 552 times. Why is it so difficult to keep your hands away from your face?

How do we address all these statistics? Let’s start by knowing the difference and check out the CDC’s definition of each!

All Purpose Cleaner


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

When cleaning, you are eliminating the visible dirt by washing and scrubbing. Be certain to change your water frequently as well. It is important to note – a surface cannot be sanitized or disinfected until it has been cleaned! There are no boundaries to cleaning! No matter how much you disinfect or sanitize an area, you will not fully get the job done unless the area or surface is clean first.

Spray cleaners are usually best for small, targeted areas, like walls, counters and stovetops, while dilutable cleaners are well-suited for big jobs and cleaning large areas, like floors and outdoor furniture.


Alcohol Wipes


Sanitizing lowers the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level, as judged by public health standards or requirements. This process works by either cleaning or disinfecting surfaces or objects to lower the risk of spreading infection.

The CDC states that solutions such as Alcohol wipes with at least 70% alcohol may also be used against COVID-19. When cleaning hands, an alcohol based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol is recommended. Note that hand sanitizer can be made of two different alcohols – ethanol or isopropanol. The CDC recommends using alcohol-based Hand rubs that must be greater than 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol.

Sanitize high-touch areas such as desks, faucets, doorknobs, telephones, calculators, keyboards, elevator buttons, stairs railings and steering wheels, to name a few.


Spray Disinfectant Cleaner


Disinfecting uses 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.

It is imperative to read the label of the product to understand what the disinfectant is effective against (bacteria, viruses, and fungi), application instructions, as well as dwell time needed to destroy harmful pathogens. This dwell time of products can be up to 10 minutes in order to be fully effective. Once complete, wipe up and rinse the disinfected surface. Remember to wear gloves to protect your skin from these types of chemicals!

Product such as NCL® Avistat-D™ has demonstrated effectiveness against viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 (Coronavirus), and can be used to fight against COVID-19.

Ok, give me the elevator pitch:

Cleaners simply remove dirt and soils and are imperative to maintain a healthy workplace. Sanitizers reduce bacteria on a surface by at least 99.9% and can be effective against COVID-19. Disinfectants kill both bacteria and viruses and need to be used properly. In short, each are important in their own specific ways and vital to the overall cleanliness of your facility.



1. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility”, Center for Disease Control & Prevention, 28 April 2020, ( Accessed 2 July 2020.

2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “Hand Hygiene Recommendations”, Center for Disease Control & Prevention, 17 May 2020, ( Accessed 2 July 2020.

3. Trieber, Lisa. “Clean, sanitize and disinfect” Michigan State University Extension, 2 April 2020, ( Accessed 1 July 2020.

4. Kimberly-Clark Worldwide, Inc “Tackle germ hot spots in the workplace with the right wiping solution”, ( Accessed 12 June 2020.

5. The Clorox Company “What’s the difference between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting?”, ( Accessed 12 June 2020.

6. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “How To Clean and Disinfect Schools To Help Slow the Spread of Flu”, Center for Disease Control & Prevention, 31 July 2018, ( Accessed 1 July 2020.

7. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “GUIDANCE FOR CLEANING & DISINFECTING PUBLIC SPACES, WORKPLACES, BUSINESSES, SCHOOLS, AND HOMES”, Center for Disease Control & Prevention, 23 April 2020, ( Accessed 1 July 2020.

8. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “Cleaning and Disinfection for Households”, Center for Disease Control & Prevention, 27 May 2020, ( Accessed 2 July 2020.