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What Are the Differences Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting?

An expert explains why a critical four minutes is needed in order to disinfect.

woman scrubbing a kitchen surface
Photography by: Getty

Every season, it's a good idea to give your living and work spaces a thorough cleaning. You may also want to disinfect every nook and cranny to reduce the spread of harmful bacteria. But what's the difference between merely cleaning the house and disinfecting it from top to bottom? It's a question that may be on your mind as you get out your mop and bucket.

 

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What Does Cleaning Mean?

When you clean your home, you remove clutter, dust, some level of germs, and grime from the areas around your house. That means that you pick up toys and dishes then wash them in soap and water, vacuum carpets and upholstered furniture, dust shelves and fixtures, wash and rinse surfaces, and get everything into order. Floors are swept and mopped, and cabinets are wiped down and organized. If it has visible dirt and dust on it, cleaning involves the removal of that dirt and dust.

 

The good news is that you probably won't need to wear a hazmat suit or set up a decontaminant chamber to get your home in its cleanest state. "Cleaning is scrubbing with hot soapy water and rinsing," explains Dr. Beth Albrecht, an instructor in microbiology, genetics and anatomy, and physiology at Stark State College. "This is typically enough for household surfaces." Cleaning on a regular basis with a keen eye can help you to keep your home spotless.

 

What Do Sanitizing and Disinfecting Mean?

While regular cleaning is good for the health of your home, it does not necessarily reduce the bacteria growth on surfaces. That's where sanitizing and disinfecting come into play. "Sanitizing is reducing microbial counts (numbers of bacteria and viruses) to safe levels. Disinfecting aims to destroy harmful—what could make us sick—growing microbes, [which are] bacteria and viruses," Dr. Albrecht says. "This is not the same as sterilizing which aims to destroy all microbes." You will definitely want to sanitize high-traffic areas of your house each week (especially the bathroom and kitchen where harmful bacteria lives) and add a disinfection step to your routine following an illness in your home, during seasons when certain viruses spread, or at least every few months.

 

You can sanitize or disinfect surfaces using bleach, disinfectant wipes, or other designated disinfectant solutions. Surfaces can be sanitized using a disinfectant wipe if they are wiped and then visibly wet for 10 seconds before being dried. Surfaces need to be visibly wet for four minutes with the disinfectant solution from the wipe in order to disinfect. If the surface is used for food, it must be rinsed with water after using a disinfectant solution on the surface, Dr. Albrecht says. Bleach and other disinfecting solutions are toxic, so you will have to make sure to remove any traces of the disinfectant afterward.

 

What about using all-natural solutions? Well, it turns out that while vinegar and lemon juice do affect bacteria populations, they are not considered to be disinfectants. Instead, vinegar and lemon juice contain acids that work as an antimicrobial, inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria. Cleaning surfaces with this homemade solution will get your surfaces very clean and make them a little more inhospitable to the growth of bacteria, but these ingredients do not work as a disinfectant.