Sanitize vs. Disinfect: What’s the Difference?

Become a better cleaner by knowing the appropriate cleaning terms.

Knowledge is Important When it Comes to Cleaning

What does cleaning really mean? Even if you’re well-versed in these cleaning mistakes that can backfire, you might struggle with the answer. When looking at cleaning products, have you ever used the words “sanitize” and “disinfect” interchangeably? Because they actually mean different things. Here’s what you need to know about these terms that aren’t, in fact, interchangeable.

Here are the things you’ve probably never cleaned but should:

How Are Cleaning, Sanitizing and Disinfecting Different?

If you’ve been using these terms without much thought, you’re not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) breaks it down for you.

According to the CDC, cleaning “removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces or objects.”

The CDC states that sanitizing “lowers the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level, as judged by public health standards or requirements. This process works by either cleaning or disinfecting surfaces or objects to lower the risk of spreading infection.”

Lastly, the CDC says disinfecting “works by using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces or objects. This process does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, but by killing germs on a surface after cleaning, it can further lower the risk of spreading infection.”

Basically, cleaning removes germs, sanitizing lowers the number of germs, and disinfecting kills germs. Looking for a place to clean? These are the germiest spots in your bathroom you should clean ASAP.

Why is it Important to Know the Difference?

Learning the difference between cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing means you can make smarter choices about which products to use on various surfaces. Cleaning a dirty floor shouldn’t require harsher chemicals that, for example, might be better suited to disinfecting toilets.

To clean a surface, the CDC recommends soap and water to remove germs.

To sanitize surfaces, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends a soap-and-water cleaning first. After that, “you can sanitize them with a solution of one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in one gallon of water.”

To disinfect a surface, the CDC advises (among other methods) using household bleach solutions. The surface should remain wet for a few minutes to ensure germs are killed. Here are five mistakes you keep making when cleaning with bleach.

Why it’s Important to Wash your Hands

Even when there’s not a pandemic, the CDC recommends washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. While it seems simple, washing your hands is important in stopping the spread of diseases. It’s so important, in fact, that you can prevent diseases just by washing your hands.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest

Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: