Many people do not realize there are very distinct differences between cleaning, disinfecting, sanitizing, and sterilizing. In fact, they’re quite different in the level of pathogens that remain after the process. Knowing the difference between these terms can help you understand what type of chemicals to buy, when to use each method, and what the expected results should be.
What is Cleaning?
Cleaning removes any dirt or dust that is visible to the eye. It is often the initial step that should be completed in order to thoroughly remove bacteria and viruses from any surface. It is often the case that harmful pathogens can thrive under “dirt”, which if not removed can allow them to thrive. Cleaning can be done with a cloth and is often combined with soap or some sort of detergent. Many people only focus on cleaning their space rather than disinfecting or sterilizing their environment. Likewise, without general surface cleaning, you’re not getting the most out of your disinfection efforts.
Examples of cleaning supplies are vacuums, brooms, rags, dust cloths, and mops.
What is Sanitizing?
Sanitizing is the level of cleanliness that goes beyond general cleanliness, but is less harsh than disinfecting, and removes enough pathogen that the body’s natural filters and immunities can handle fend off. When you sanitize, you are removing and decreasing the amount of bacteria by 99.9% (meaning for every million pathogens present on a surface, roughly about 10,000 will remain). However, sanitizers are not able to remove viruses, so if someone is ill in your family and you want to stop the spread of the virus, you would be better served to up your cleaning level to use a disinfectant rather than a sanitizer.
Since sanitizers are less harsh than disinfectants, they are more often used on surfaces where food is eaten. Make sure that you check the label to see if the sanitizer can be used on food surfaces.
Using bleach to wipe down a surface is an example of sanitization. Sanitizers include iodine, quaternary ammonia, and chlorine bleach.
What is Disinfecting?
Disinfecting is more harsh than cleaning. Rather than removing visible dirt, it kills or inactivates bacteria and viruses. This is a good process to use if you are worried about germs or the spread of diseases.
If you or someone in your household gets sick, you should utilize disinfectants. The type of viruses and microorganisms that the disinfectant kills should be listed on the label. As well, specific pathogens will often require a minimum contact time with the disinfectant, again, often found on the product’s label. Most often you would simply spray and leave wet, since wiping the disinfectant away before it’s had a chance to kill the pathogen you’re after can give you a false sense of clean.
It is very important to disinfect surfaces during COVID-19. COVID-19 is considered an emerging pathogen, so you should make sure that the disinfectant that you use inactivates or removes these pathogens if you want it to help reduce the viral spread. Popular disinfectants include isopropyl alcohol (70% versus 90% for added contact time and slower evaporation), hydrogen peroxide, and again would also include chlorine bleach.
What is Sterilizing?
Sterilizing is the most intense out of cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. It removes all forms of microorganisms and biofilms (the protective layer pathogens produce to allow pathogens as safe space to thrive) from a surface. Sterilizing is often used in hospitals, in particular where surgery is performed, and are also common in mainstream locations such as tattoo parlors or any situation where tools are designed to break or pierce the skin. Most people will not need to sterilize their homes and it is mostly reserved for laboratories, hospitals, and other highly critical environments.
Methods for sterilization include the use of dry-heat sterilizers such as autoclaves, or chemicals that come with specific handling instructions and safety measures. Most hospitals use pressurized hot steam to kill bacteria. Chemicals that can be used for both disinfection and sterilization include ozone, bleach, phthalaldehyde, and hydrogen peroxide in higher concentrations.
While surfaces have been the main focus thus far, keep mind that many surface pathogens can be carried into the area through outdoor air, HVAC systems, and people expelling particles through coughs and sneezes. If you are concerned about bacteria or contaminants in the air(hint: you should be), a HEPA air purifier is a great option for you.
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