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Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting: Here’s the Difference and How to Do Each in Your Home

Kara Jillian Brown

Kara Jillian BrownMarch 13, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images / Catherine Falls Commercial

I would say that I’m a pretty conscientious cleaner. I’m a bit of a germaphobe, and dedicate a decent amount of time to keeping my home clean and tidy. But with COVID-19, I want to make sure I’m doing everything right. Apparently, cleaning, and disinfecting aren’t the same thing, and to remove and kill and remove germs, you need to do both.

“Disinfectants don’t work if there’s a visibly dirty surface,” says Karen Hoffmann, RN, immediate past president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). “It’s always recommended to clean and then disinfect surfaces if they’re visibly dirty.”

Cleaning vs. disinfecting—what’s the difference?

Cleaning, explains Hoffmann, refers to removing dirt off of surfaces. “Embedded in dirt is lots of different germs and viruses, even fungi, so cleaning alone won’t kill germs,” she says. “But, we’re going to use elbow grease to remove them, literally decreasing the number of germs that’s on a surface. Disinfecting, on the other hand, actually kills germs.”

To complete both steps, “You should look to see if a surface and visibly dirty. If it’s visibly dirty you should clean with soap and water first, make sure that it’s dry, and then use the disinfecting agent,” says Hoffmann. “If it’s not visibly dirty, then you can go ahead and just use the disinfectant.”

What about sanitizing?

Sanitizing lowers the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level by either cleaning or disinfecting, the CDC explains.

“Sanitizing is really kind of a food service terminology. It really means that the surface has been cleaned to the level that it’s safe,” says Hoffmann. “When we think of sanitizing, we think of silverware and dishes being sanitized so that they’re safe for the next person. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sterile. It just means that we know that any germs or bacteria that are on them have been reduced to a level that will cause disease.”

How to clean and disinfect

If no one in your home has COVID-19, you don’t need to go overboard. Current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for regular cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces like tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, and sinks. If someone in your home has been diagnosed with COVID-19, the CDC recommends cleaning and disinfecting those surfaces daily.

For cleaning, Hoffmann says soap and water is enough. Using essential oils will make it smell nice, but will have no effect when it comes to cleanliness. Green cleaning agents are like soap and water in that you’re going to reduce the number of pathogens, but may not get rid of all the pathogens you’re concerned about.

For disinfecting, the CDC says diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70 percent alcohol, and most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective. To make your own bleach solution, you can mix 5 tbsp (1/3 cup) of bleach per gallon of water, or 4 tsp of bleach per quart of water. If you’re using a store-bought disinfectant, the EPA has compiled a list of products believed to be effective against COVID-19, like Clorox Disinfecting Wipes and Lysol Disinfectant Spray.

Current evidence suggests that COVID-19 may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials, says the CDC. Hoffmann points to previous that research shows that other coronaviruses can live on porous surfaces like clothing or a couch for a few hours or up to a day and on hard surfaces for two to three days.

When using any disinfectant, Hoffmann says it’s important to read manufacturer’s instructions on the product label to ensure you’re leaving it on the surface for a long enough time and protecting your skin, eyes, and lungs.

“If you spray Lysol on a surface, you wouldn’t want to wipe it off, you want to let it sit on that surface until it dries, because it does take time to activate,” she says. “The same thing with things like 3 percent hydrogen peroxide. It’s a good, effective agent, but it takes about six to eight minutes to work.”

You also want to make sure you’re using a clean cloth. “I don’t recommend using a sponge unless you use it for one time and then throw it away, because it’s impossible to clean a sponge,” says Hoffmann. A cleaning towel should only be used for one day, she says. Soak cleaning towels in hot soapy water for 20 minutes after use, and set them aside to be laundered at the end of the day.

If someone you live with isn’t infected with COVID-19, Hoffmann says you shouldn’t stress too much about disinfecting your home. Focus your attention to adequate hand hygiene. If you’re adequately washing your hands as soon as you enter your home, you lower the risk of cross contamination. But if you do wish to disinfect, be sure to clean visibly dirty surfaces before disinfecting.

You touch your face 23 times an hour—here are three ways to curb the habit, according to a behavioral psychologist. And although hand washing sounds trivial, it’s extremely effective. Here’s the science behind it.

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