Sanitize vs Disinfect - What's The Difference? - Public Goods Blog

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Sanitize vs Disinfect – What’s The Difference?

Keeping yourself and others safe and healthy is important, so read this to learn the differences between sanitizing and disinfectants, and how to effectively do both.

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As the weather starts to get colder, and illnesses like COVID-19 and RSV continue to rear their heads across the country, it’s more important than ever to keep yourself and the people around you safe and healthy. One of the best ways to do that is to clean, sanitize and disinfect the surfaces and items you come into contact with the most. But, this begs the question – do you clean, sanitize and disinfect everything? What’s the difference between disinfecting and sanitizing, anyway?

While sanitizers and disinfectants are commonly referred to interchangeably, the two processes are actually very different. Because of this, they need to be used in different situations. Disinfecting and sanitizing are types of decontamination, which is different from cleaning and sanitizing something.

If you’re curious about how and when to sanitize vs. disinfect, you’re not alone, which is why we put together this helpful guide that gets down to the nitty-gritty of each practice. Read on to learn more!

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Sanitizing vs. Disinfecting: 101

Cleaning simply removes dirt and other impurities from surfaces, while sanitizing and disinfecting go far beyond this to eliminate harmful bacteria. Knowing the difference between these deep cleaning terms can help to know which one is called for in a situation.

What is Sanitizing?

Sanitizing is the practice of reducing the number of harmful pathogens that are present on a surface. According to the CDC, it lowers the number of germs to a safe level based on public health standards and requirements. Because sanitation doesn’t get rid of all of a surface’s germs, it’s considered gentler than disinfecting.

What is Disinfecting?

Disinfecting is the act of cleaning something in a way that virtually destroys bacteria. According to the CDC, while sanitizing refers to lowering the bacteria levels to a certain safe zone, disinfecting refers to killing nearly 100% of germs that live on surfaces or objects. One thing that is important to note is that disinfecting doesn’t necessarily clean dirty surfaces, but it does help to drastically lower the risk of people getting sick.

What’s the Difference?

Sanitizing simply lowers the number of bacteria that live on a surface, but it doesn’t necessarily kill the bacteria that remain. Disinfecting, on the other hand, is designed to kill all of the bacteria and remove them from surfaces.

When to Sanitize

Generally, it’s best to sanitize fairly regularly, especially in environments where people come into close quarters. For example, schools, daycare centers, and offices should make a habit to sanitize doorknobs, desks, tables, and faucets. Additionally, only sanitize things that don’t come into contact with overtly dangerous bacteria, like salmonella, because you may not get rid of all of the harmful germs.

In terms of sanitizing your hands, which is also highly recommended during this time, it’s best to do so before and after entering a place where you’re around mixed company. Places like public bathrooms, offices, and even grocery stores are riddled with germs, so it’s best to be safe and use hand sanitizer frequently.

When to Disinfect

Even though you may think that disinfecting is a common part of the cleaning process, it’s actually not something that people do very often. Disinfecting is really meant for large-scale, potentially dangerous situations, like those that involve bodily fluids or raw meat.

You should disinfect things like toilets, sinks, and cutting boards often to ensure that they won’t spread viruses or bacteria to the people who use them. You’ll also want to disinfect high-touch areas, like doorknobs and faucets, at least once a week, and follow those efforts up with more frequent sanitations.

Additionally, try not to disinfect too much. Overuse of disinfectants can lead to harmful health and environmental consequences like producing stronger viruses and bacteria that are immune to disinfectants.

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What Is Considered a Sanitizer?

A sanitizer is a product that reduces the bacteria on a surface by at least 99.9%. A simple solution of equal parts water and bleach can act as a sanitizer, but you can also use sanitizing wipes, household surface sprays, and other pre-mixed cleaning products.

What Is Considered a Disinfectant?

According to EPA standards, a disinfectant is a product that must kill at least 99.999% of germs, compared to 99.9 percent for sanitizers. Even though this difference seems minimal, it can significantly impact how many infectious bacteria are able to spread. Products that are considered disinfectants are only generally available to professionals, but you can make a disinfectant solution with bleach and water at a ratio of 2:1. You can also use rubbing alcohol as a disinfectant.

How Can I Safely Sanitize and Disinfect?

As with any cleaning practice, it’s important to be safe when using sanitizing and disinfectant products before, during, and after the cleaning process.


When purchasing sanitizing and disinfecting products, be sure that they haven’t been tampered with and that you have a place to store them whenever they aren’t in use. In terms of their storage space, make sure that it’s out of reach of children and pets. Additionally, pay attention to the warnings on the labels. If you think you may be allergic to a specific product or chemical, see a doctor to confirm your suspicions and seek out alternative cleaners.


While you’re using sanitizing and disinfecting products, never mix cleaners unless the labels say it’s okay to do so. Combining certain chemicals can cause reactions that produce noxious fumes, cause serious injury or even lead to death. Additionally, check the label to see if you need to use gloves and/or eye protection while using your products.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially if using disinfectants, is to allow them to sit on surfaces for the appropriate amount of time. If you wipe them off right after they are applied, they will likely not kill all of the bacteria. Instead, let it sit on surfaces for at least a few minutes, or simply leave them indefinitely if that’s what the product calls for. Lastly, if you swallow, inhale, or get them on your skin, follow the directions on the label, call poison control or seek medical attention immediately.


When you’re done with your cleaning product, be sure that the lid is screwed on tightly and place it back where you originally stored it. Make sure your sanitizers and disinfectants are in a cool, dry place, such as a cabinet, and discard them if they’re expired. If you didn’t wear gloves, wash your hands to remove any potentially harmful residue.

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