Cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting. Most people would think they're interchangeable. After all, we've always been taught that they're synonyms. But if you want to prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as the flu or cold, you'll need to know the difference between all three.
Basically, all three processes are levels of decontamination with the primary goal being the reduction of the risk of infection. In short, you use any of these processes to make surfaces safer for contact with a lower chance of causing someone to get sick. Cleaning is the most basic level, sanitizing is the next step up, and disinfecting is even higher. Now, let’s get a little bit more specific.
Cleaning: defined as the removal of visible dirt, debris, and impurities as well as some germs from the surfaces of objects using soap and water. Take note that when you remove any germs, you're not exactly killing them. There are still some germs left on the surface but the chances of infection spreading becomes lower. However, there is still the risk of cross-contamination. The germs, dirt, and impurities are now on the cleaning tools and mopping solution you used.
Sanitizing: defined as the reduction of the number of bacteria on surfaces to a safe level based on public health standards or requirements. When you sanitize a surface, you're actually killing 99.9 percent of certain bacteria present within 30 seconds. However, you are not reducing the number of virus and fungi on the surface.
Disinfecting: defined as the destruction or inactivation of virus, bacteria, and other disease-causing microorganisms within a specified amount of time (typically 10 minutes). Keep in mind that while disinfecting a surface will kill germs, it won't remove them or any dirt on surfaces. You'll need to “preclean” a surface prior to disinfecting it in order to lower the risk of infection spreading. This type of task is commonly performed in healthcare facilities. For example, a hospital makes use of high-level disinfectants and disinfecting wipes. This is because surfaces in this type of facility have come into contact with blood and other bodily fluids which require a stronger decontamination method than just cleaning or sanitizing alone. This level of decontamination can also be utilized in washrooms of public places such as malls, restaurants, and gyms.
Here's a more vivid example: Leftover ketchup on your table.
Level #1: You can wipe it away with a cloth and some soapy water. This is cleaning. However, while the ketchup is no longer there, invisible microbes may remain.
Level #2: You can spray 1 tablespoon of bleach mixed with 1 gallon of cool water on the surface of your table after wiping the ketchup away. Let it sit for 2 minutes before drying the table. This is sanitizing. 99.99% of bacteria will be killed but virus, fungi, and bacterial spores may still be there.
Level #3: If you want to make sure that any known microorganisms on your table is gone (perhaps you had a guest with an infectious disease), then you should disinfect it using a stronger concentration of bleach (1/4 (minimum) to 3/4 (maximum) cup of bleach to 1 gallon of cool water). This will destroy the pathogens present on the surface with the exception of bacterial spores. Unlike cleaning and sanitizing, you're going to need to let the disinfectant stand on the surface of your table for a specified amount of time, usually 10 minutes, for it to effectively eliminate the microorganisms.
Now, why are we even discussing the differences between these levels of decontamination? Why not just go straight for disinfecting since it’s the most effective out of all three? Well, for one, not all surfaces will require that type of cleaning. Windows and floors typically have a low risk of containing pathogens and transferring them to a person. Two, you don't want to expose your loved ones to disinfectants, particularly objects that will come into contact with their mouth such as spoons, plates, glasses, toys, etc. Disinfectants are pesticides and can be dangerous to human and environmental health. Therefore, it’s important that you limit the use of disinfectants to critical areas only.
Three, knowing the differences between these levels of cleaning is vital in certain industries such as the food industry and healthcare facilities. In the food industry, they have to make sure that any food produced are free from any microorganisms that could lead to foodborne illnesses. But they also have to make sure that the quality of the food and its safety is not affected which is why the process used in this industry most is sanitization.
In medical institutions, on the other hand, cleaning and disinfecting are the two levels that are applied. As we’ve mentioned before, areas that are exposed to blood and bodily fluids such as ultrasound probes will require disinfecting because sanitizing it would not be enough to prevent the spread of infection.
It all depends on the location. Inside your home, you need to sanitize (not disinfect!) any surfaces that will have contact with food such as dishes, utensils, cutting boards, tables, trays, etc. You should also sanitize other objects that will come into contact with your children's mouths such as toys and pacifiers. You should disinfect non-porous surfaces that will not have any contact with food or mouths such as bathrooms, computer keyboards, desks, sinks, phones, and doorknobs.
In a medical institution, all surfaces must be cleaned before it can be sanitized or disinfected. There are noncritical environmental surfaces in a hospital such as windows, walls, and floors that generally have a low chance of transmitting pathogens. This means that they may only require surface cleaning. However, cross-contamination is possible if the cleaning supplies for these surfaces are not properly used, decontaminated, and stored.
High-touch environmental surfaces (i.e. those touched the most by people in the hospital), on the other hand, can easily transmit pathogens which means that these should be disinfected, not just cleaned or sanitized. The type of disinfectant used will be determined by how the item comes into contact with people.
For example, items that come into contact with intact skin but not mucous membranes such as blood pressure cuffs, computers, bed rails, and bedside tables can be cleaned using a low-level disinfectant. Items that come into contact with mucous membranes or non-intact skin such as endoscopes, laryngoscope blades, and anesthesia equipment require high level disinfection.