The Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, & Disinfecting

By Cappstone Inc. |
The Difference Between Cleaning and Sanitizing

The reason it’s important to know the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting is because knowing the appropriate method to use can be the difference between health and illness, or worse. When talking about cleaning – acknowledging that there’s a mess, spill, or contamination that needs to be tended to – it’s usually used as an umbrella term that can mean any of these three methods.

The truth is that the supplies, mechanisms, and purpose of cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting sometimes blend together. This is why knowing the distinctions of each will help you navigate your tasks. Here are the differences between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting:


Cleaning is the most broadly used term in the realm of, well, cleaning. By definition, cleaning is the removal of dirt, dust, debris, and (potentially) germs from surfaces. Cleaning is commonly performed through both dry and wet methods. Dusting, wiping, sweeping, and vacuuming are methods of dry cleaning that effectively remove dry contaminants, like dust, dirt, and other debris. When dry methods don’t suffice, which may be the case with hardened dirt and stains, or you need to eliminate germs and bacteria, you may clean by using soap and water and other similar solutions. Unlike sanitizing and disinfecting, cleaning isn’t dictated by external standards and has a broader purpose.


Sanitizing is, by definition, the lowering of the number of germs on a surface to a safe level. What is a safe level of germs, you might ask? Apart from what your intuition would tell you, sanitation is usually determined by public health standards. These standards may be set by city or state health departments, and sometimes by other institutions, like schools. 

Sanitizing can be achieved through both cleaning and disinfecting. To better understand what makes sanitizing different from cleaning and disinfecting, if you’re decontaminating a surface to meet the safety requirements of a governing authority, then you’re sanitizing. If you’re doing it for other reasons, it can be considered cleaning or disinfecting.


The tricky part of understanding what disinfecting is comes from its definition, which may include the use of both “cleaning” and “sanitizing”, depending on where you look. What makes disinfecting different from cleaning and sanitizing, though, is the use of disinfecting chemicals to kill bacteria, viruses, and other harmful pathogens from surfaces. 

The traditional process of disinfecting isn’t much different from cleaning and sanitizing, but specific supplies are used, and for a different purpose. Also worth noting is that disinfecting doesn’t necessarily clear surfaces of dust, dirt, or other debris. Most disinfecting solutions contain specific chemicals that are tested and approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


As you can see, the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting isn’t so black and white. All three share some purpose, have similar methods, and supplies that are interchangeable. The devil really is in the details. No matter, they’re all important and should be performed regularly! 

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