The terms “cleaning,” “sanitizing” and “disinfecting” are often used interchangeably, with these words carrying distinct implications when they appear on household products.

Now, because of an increasing urgency to fight the spread of diseases like COVID-19, it’s important to understand the terminology on your cleaning solution’s label.


Cleaning alone will always contribute to the health of indoor occupants because allergens and microorganisms are being removed from the surfaces of the indoor environment. The problem, however, is the risk of cross-contamination. The mopping solution and the cleaning tools could be spreading disease in the absence of a germicide.

When you sanitize, you are killing/reducing the number of bacteria present by 99.9 percent (3 log 10) but doing nothing about viruses and fungus.

Sanitizing is better than cleaning alone but the reduction of pathogen populations on environmental surfaces is exponentially better when you disinfect.


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.

While it involves the physical removal of dust and dirt, it does not kill or thoroughly remove bacteria or viruses from surfaces, however does it lower their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.

Cleaning should always be the first step in your household cleaning and disinfecting routine and should always be performed before sanitizing, disinfecting and sterilizing because it improves the effectiveness of each process


Sanitizing reduces the amount of bacteria on a surface, but does not kill or destroy bacteria, it 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.


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. That’s important, because disinfecting hard, nonporous surfaces is one of the most reliable ways to help lower the risk of spreading germs from surfaces by touch.

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.

The power of disinfection

It’s important to remember that if you don’t see the word “disinfect” or “disinfectant” on a product’s label, a solution probably isn’t EPA-registered to kill germs, or to kill viruses.

If a member of your household has just recovered from a virus, it’s best to disinfect — not sanitize — surfaces, as EPA-approved sanitizers only have claims for bacteria, while disinfectants have claims against both bacteria and viruses.

In Summary

Cleaning – removes dirt, dust and other soils from surfaces. Clean low-risk surfaces, such as floors, windows, etc., where the likelihood of pathogen transfer from the surface is low.

Sanitizing – removes bacteria from surfaces and is usually applied to food contact surfaces, which is required as part of the food code.

Disinfecting – kills harmful bacteria and viruses from surfaces especially for frequently touched surfaces and surfaces likely to harbour pathogens

The Formal Guideline for Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting

These Environmental Protection Agency guidelines make a clear distinction between “cleaning” and “sanitizing”:

“Cleaning is done with water, a cleaning product, and scrubbing. Cleaning does not kill bacteria, viruses, or fungi, which are generally referred to as “germs.” Cleaning products are used to remove germs, dirt, and other organic material by washing them down the drain. Sanitizing and disinfecting products are chemicals that work by killing germs. These chemicals are also called antimicrobial pesticides…Disinfectants kill more germs than sanitizers. In most cases, a cleaning product is used first. Then the surface is either sanitized or disinfected when it is necessary.”

Sanitizing and disinfecting are different from simple cleaning or washing because they kill germs by chemical means, and, further, “Disinfectants kill more germs than sanitizers.”