The Science of Disinfection: Understanding the Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting

Posted on May 20, 2024

Whether you’re a business owner or a commercial property manager, maintaining a clean and healthy environment is among your most crucial responsibilities.

An essential aspect of this involves understanding the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. Each process refers to a specific level of surface treatment, so being able to tell each one apart can help you determine the most appropriate service for your facility.  

This guide aims to explore these terms and breaks down their practical applications in commercial settings. Let’s dive in!

The Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting 

Cleaning refers to the physical removal of dirt and impurities from surfaces. It typically involves using water with soap, detergent, or solvents to scrub surfaces or objects. This ultimately reduces the number of contaminants and helps promote more effective sanitizing or disinfecting. 

Note cleaning does not kill germs – it simply clears away debris and some of the microbial population. 

On the other hand, sanitizing is a process that goes one step further. It reduces the number of bacteria on surfaces to a safe level as judged by public health standards. It can be performed on food-contact surfaces like kitchen countertops and children’s toys. However, it’s not meant to eliminate all microorganisms on a surface. 

Disinfecting is a stronger treatment than sanitizing, killing nearly 100% of viruses and bacteria. It involves using EPA-registered disinfectants to eliminate the microorganisms from the surfaces they’re applied to. This process is crucial in preventing the spread of diseases, especially in healthcare settings.  

While all three processes aim to promote cleanliness and health, they differ in their level of germ-killing power and their suitable applications. 

What Is the Difference Between Cleaning and Sanitizing?

Let’s break down the comparisons further by tackling the first two terms: cleaning and sanitizing. 

As described earlier, cleaning involves physically wiping, scrubbing, or sweeping surfaces to reduce the amount of dirt and impurities on surfaces. Cleaning agents are used to break up and remove soil and debris and make the environment look clean. Still, cleaning alone doesn’t guarantee that a surface is safe. 

That’s where sanitizing plays a role. This treatment reduces the number of bacteria on cleaned surfaces to lower the risk of infection. 

With this, we can say that cleaning mainly focuses on appearance, while sanitizing prioritizes health. The two must be performed regularly, especially on high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, handrails, and shared equipment, to maintain a pristine and healthy environment. 

Sanitizing vs. Disinfecting: When To Perform Each 

These two terms are commonly interchanged as they aim to reduce the spread of disease. However, they do so at different levels. 

Sanitizing surfaces is generally a quick process that reduces the number of bacteria to safe levels. It’s suited for areas that come into contact with food or for environments that need to be germ-controlled, like dining tables or gym equipment. The catch is that sanitizing does not eliminate all pathogens, including fungal growth or viruses. 

Disinfecting, on the other hand, can kill nearly all germs on surfaces or objects. This method uses more potent chemicals to kill microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. 

Disinfecting is necessary in hospitals and other healthcare settings where the risk of infection is higher. However, it’s also recommended in any business during an outbreak or pandemic and in restrooms, where pathogens are more likely to be present. 

If you run a business unrelated to healthcare, disinfection can be done at your discretion. You don’t need to treat every surface, but it’s a good practice to disinfect high-touch surfaces regularly to help prevent the spread of diseases. 

In short, understanding your business’s nature and cleaning needs can help you choose when to sanitize or disinfect your commercial space. Regular sanitizing may suffice for daily maintenance, while disinfecting may be necessary in special circumstances or after confirmed exposure to infectious agents. 

JAN-PRO Cleaning & Disinfecting Service Providers Can Help With All Your Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting Needs

Understanding the distinctions between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting helps maintain a visibly appealing space and a healthy environment for everyone who walks through your doors. Each method plays a critical role in your overall hygiene strategy. Choosing the right approach at the right time can make all the difference in protecting your clients, employees, and business.

Fortunately, you don’t have to navigate these complexities alone. JAN-PRO Cleaning & Disinfecting offers comprehensive services you can tailor to your requirements. Whether you require regular cleaning, thorough sanitizing of high-contact surfaces, or deep cleaning and disinfection to combat an outbreak, we are equipped to handle your needs efficiently and effectively.

Schedule your free estimate today to get started. 


Cleaning and disinfecting services are provided by independently owned and operated JAN-PRO Cleaning & Disinfecting franchisees.