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Cleaning vs. Sanitizing vs. Disinfecting: What’s the Difference?

Right now, if your facility is still open or you’re preparing to reopen, you probably have asked your janitorial company to clean a little more often and a lot more thoroughly. Maybe you’ve asked them to scour those toilets until they shine or leave no desk left unscrubbed. You’re hoping this extra elbow grease will ensure a safe, healthy, sanitized environment for employees, guests and customers.

The problem is, there is a big difference between clean, sanitized and disinfected. 

Janitorial staff often reuse the same rag as they work, which ends up spreading more than cleaning. And if they try to save time or money by using a sanitizer or disinfectant without cleaning first, they’re leaving behind millions of germs, which can hide underneath layers of dirt and dust. Surfaces must be cleaned before they can be sanitized or disinfected. 

So what exactly is the difference between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting?

Cleaning removes visible dirt and nonvisible germs. The key word here is “removes.” Cleaning generally doesn’t kill bacteria and viruses; rather, it reduces their number. When your janitorial staff clean, they are usually wiping or scrubbing your surfaces with soap and water. 

Regular cleanings keep your office looking neat and tidy, and they make your employees feel good about their work environment. You absolutely should maintain a regular cleaning schedule for your facility, but you shouldn’t—and can’t—rely on cleaning alone to protect your employees from viruses and other infectious pathogens.

Sanitizing lowers the number of germs to a level that is considered safe. Specifically, sanitizing removes at least 99.9% of bacteria on non-food contact surfaces or 99.999% on food contact surfaces. When your janitorial staff sanitize, it is important that they allow the sanitizer to remain visibly wet on a surface for a specified amount of time (the dwell time) before wiping it off.

The goal of sanitizing is to reduce the risk of infection and prevent the spread of disease. Sanitizing typically does not kill viruses. Your workplace is healthier, but sanitizing doesn’t prevent the spread of flu viruses, coronaviruses or other viruses.

Disinfecting kills germs dead. Disinfecting refers to killing almost 100% of specified germs on surfaces or objects, including viruses. Note the use of “specified”—not all disinfectants kill all germs. You must choose a disinfectant capable of killing the germs you’re most concerned about at your facility. Like sanitizers, disinfectants must be allowed to dwell on a surface before being removed. It’s extremely important to note that surfaces cannot be disinfected until they are properly cleaned to remove all soil and biofilm. 

While many people use the terms “sanitizing” and “disinfecting” interchangeably, there is a difference. Disinfecting is more powerful and better suited for high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, light switches and handles. If you are worried about viruses in your workplace, you want to disinfect it—after you clean it. 

Once you know what type of service you need, you also have to know what product to use. For general cleaning, an all-purpose cleaner is fine. For sanitizing, a cleaner that claims it can kill 99.9% of bacteria (for non-food contact surfaces) will work. For disinfecting, you need an EPA-registered product that is appropriate for the surface at hand. Disinfectants aren’t suitable for soft surfaces such as carpet or office chairs, for example.

At APEX, we use Vital Oxide, a disinfectant included on the EPA’s List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2, meaning it has been approved for use against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. We’ve been using it for years because it has a Hazardous Materials Identification System (HMIS) rating of and is food-grade safe, NSF-certified and CRI-approved. Only a few other disinfectants on List N carry these endorsements. Most importantly, we trust it to protect our clients’ most valuable asset: their employees.

Like any other tool, a disinfectant is only helpful if you know how to use it. Janitorial staff must be trained on how to safely and effectively apply the disinfectant. This includes taking important precautions such as wearing personal protective equipment like safety goggles and gloves and ensuring the area to be disinfected is well-ventilated. Staff also must follow the instructions on the label, which will indicate the appropriate dwell time.

If it sounds like disinfecting is a process, that’s because it is. But that doesn’t mean your employees have to lose out on hours of productivity. People can re-enter an area that has been disinfected by a food-grade and hospital-grade disinfectant within a short period of time. Vital Oxide has a re-entry time of 20 minutes. 

APEX has been offering infection control services for more than 10 of our 24 years in business. Every member of our sales, operations management and field technician teams is required to complete a seven-hour Accredited Infection Prevention Expert certification. We know the difference between clean, sanitized and disinfected, we know which product to use, and we know how to use it.

Many surface care companies only recently jumped onto the infection control bandwagon in response to COVID-19. When it comes to the health of your employees, you can’t afford to mess around with an inexperienced company. Contact us today for a free consultation on how we can clean and disinfect your facility.