Disinfecting vs. Sanitizing

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Home Improvement

Disinfecting and sanitizing are not the same thing. Justin Paget/Getty Images

If you have a messy situation and need to clean up potentially hazardous germs, should you sanitize or disinfect? Although these terms are often used interchangeably, there is a legal difference. In the United States, sanitizers are agents that destroy 99.999 percent of bacteria in 30 seconds during the Official Detergent Sanitizer Test. Disinfectants, on the other hand, are products that destroy all organisms in 10 minutes during the AOAC Use Dilution Test.

Cleaning only removes visible dirt and germs from surfaces. Disinfecting uses chemicals to destroy germs not visible to the naked eye rather than simply reducing them. Sanitizing lowers the number of germs to a safe level as judged by public health standards.

If you want to get rid of bacteria and viruses, you’ll want to disinfect rather than sanitize. EPA-approved disinfectants kill both bacteria and viruses.

Properly Disinfecting and Sanitizing

To sanitize or disinfect in your home, you generally start with bleach and cool water in a bucket. Wear rubber gloves to protect your hands. Make sure that you’re using a bleach concentration appropriate for household rather than industrial use.

If you’re sanitizing, use 1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 gallon of water (or 1 teaspoon to 1 quart). Transfer the solution to a spray bottle and spray the item you want to sanitize. Leave the solution on the area for at least one minute before rinsing. This solution can be used on toys, eating utensils and objects that will come into contact with mouths.

To disinfect, mix 1/3 cup of bleach with a gallon of water or 4 teaspoons with a quart. This concentration should only be used to disinfect surfaces that won’t come into contact with food or mouths, such as hospital areas, floors, changing tables, and potty chairs. The area should be exposed to the bleach solution for a longer period of time since it’s stronger. While the official test for disinfecting requires all germs to be killed in 10 minutes, 2-3 minutes of exposure is usually enough. Keep in mind that bleach solutions are only effective for 24 hours.

Both bleach and ammonia products are inexpensive and effective for sanitizing and disinfecting. Bleach can be used on fabrics, ceramics, and dishes, while ammonia is great for cleaning hard surfaces like glass and tile. It’s crucial to never mix bleach and ammonia as it creates dangerous toxic fumes.

For more information, check out related articles like “5 Glass-top Stove Cleaning Tips,” “5 Great Ways to Clean Grease,” and “5 Tips for Cleaning Stains From a Dishwasher.” You can also refer to sources like ALLQA Products, Antimicrobial Laboratories, Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department, Maryland Public Schools, Hillyard: The Cleaning Resource, National Food Service Management Institute, and NCRKids.


1. What is the difference between disinfecting and sanitizing?

Disinfecting and sanitizing are two different processes that are used to clean surfaces. Sanitizing is the process of reducing the number of germs and bacteria on a surface to a safe level. Disinfecting, on the other hand, is the process of killing all germs and bacteria on a surface. Disinfecting is a more thorough process than sanitizing, as it eliminates all germs and bacteria, while sanitizing only reduces their numbers. Disinfecting is typically used in high-risk areas, such as hospitals and laboratories, while sanitizing is used in areas where the risk of infection is lower, such as homes and offices.

2. When should you disinfect a surface?

You should disinfect a surface when it has come into contact with potentially harmful germs or bacteria, such as in a medical setting or when dealing with raw meat in the kitchen. Disinfecting should also be done on a regular basis in high-risk areas, such as bathrooms and kitchens, to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria. It’s important to follow the instructions on the disinfectant product you are using to ensure that it is used correctly and effectively.

3. When should you sanitize a surface?

You should sanitize a surface when it needs to be cleaned, but the risk of infection is low. For example, you might sanitize a desk or a table in an office setting, or a countertop in a kitchen. Sanitizing is also important in food preparation areas to prevent the spread of bacteria that could cause foodborne illnesses. Like disinfecting, it’s important to follow the instructions on the sanitizing product you are using to ensure that it is used correctly and effectively.

4. What are some common disinfectants?

There are many different disinfectants available on the market, but some of the most common ones include bleach, hydrogen peroxide, and alcohol-based solutions. Bleach is a powerful disinfectant that can kill a wide range of germs and bacteria, but it can also be harsh on some surfaces and materials. Hydrogen peroxide is a gentler disinfectant that is effective against a range of germs and bacteria, but it may not be as effective as bleach against certain types of viruses. Alcohol-based solutions are another common disinfectant that are effective against many types of germs and bacteria, but they may not be as effective against viruses as other types of disinfectants.

5. What are some common sanitizers?

Common sanitizers include products like hand sanitizer, which is designed to reduce the number of germs and bacteria on the hands. Other common sanitizers include products designed for use on surfaces, such as countertops and desks. These products typically contain alcohol or other disinfecting agents that are effective at reducing the number of germs and bacteria on a surface. It’s important to choose a sanitizer that is appropriate for the surface you are cleaning, and to follow the instructions on the product to ensure that it is used correctly and effectively.

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