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What is the difference between cleaning, sanitising, and disinfecting?

Cleaning is done with water, a cleaning product, and scrubbing. Cleaning does not kill bacteria, viruses, or fungi, which are generally referred to as “germs.” Cleaning products are used to remove germs, dirt, and other organic material by washing them down the drain.

Sanitising and disinfecting products are chemicals that work by killing germs. These chemicals are also called antimicrobial pesticides. They are regulated by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (or similar agencies in other states) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Disinfectants kill more germs than sanitizers. In most cases, a cleaning product is used first. Then the surface is either sanitized or disinfected when it is necessary.

Before choosing a cleaning or antimicrobial product, you will first need to decide whether the surface needs to be cleaned, sanitized, or disinfected. In most cases, you will need to clean a surface before you sanitize or disinfect. But it doesn’t make sense to disinfect something that only needs to be cleaned. The products used to disinfect are more toxic and/or more expensive than products used just to clean. Overusing antimicrobial products like sanitizers and disinfectants may also lead to the spread of “superbugs.” Superbugs are germs that are not easily killed by disinfectants and/or antibiotics.


Reduces germs, dirt, and impurities by removing them from surfaces or objects. Dirt and organic material make some disinfectants less effective, so cleaning is necessary before disinfecting in most cases. Read more about Cleaning.


Sanitising is the use of a chemical product or device (like a dishwasher or a steam mop) that reduces the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a level considered safe by public health standards or requirements. Sanitising kills most germs but not all of them. Read more about Sanitising.


Disinfecting uses chemicals to kill 99.999% of germs on hard, non-porous surfaces or objects. Read more about Disinfecting.

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