Glenn Rasin

By: Glenn Rasin on April 26th, 2019

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What is the Difference Between Cleaning and Disinfecting?

It doesn’t matter if you are maintaining a school, hospital, office, or any other facility - cleaning and disinfecting is an important part of your maintenance routine. Keeping your facility clean will reduce the spread of illness and enhance your facility’s overall appearance.

Cleaning and disinfecting is the best way to reduce the spread of germs throughout hard surfaces in your facility.

Not sure if you should be using a cleaner or disinfectant in your facility? If you are disinfecting, you should be using both.

Pro Tip: You can clean without disinfecting, but you can not disinfect without cleaning. If you are cleaning and do not need to kill and remove germs, then you do not need to disinfect. If you are looking to kill germs on a surface, you need to disinfect after cleaning.

Cleaning and disinfecting are two different procedures that should be used together to remove and kill germs.

Always Clean Before you Disinfect

It is important to clean or remove any visible soils before disinfecting. Cleaning removes loose soils, preparing the surface or object to be disinfected.

Disinfecting kills germs on the surface, preventing them from spreading. If a surface is not cleaned first, germs can hide under soils and reduce the efficacy of the disinfectant.

What Areas Should be Disinfected?

Depending on your facility and industry, different areas within your building will have different protocols on if they should be cleaned or cleaned and disinfected. Check with your supervisor for proper cleaning and disinfecting procedures.

High-touch points should always be disinfected. Depending on the surface and facility, you may have to disinfect high-touch surfaces several times a day.Door Handle

High-touch areas include:

  • Doorknobs
  • Handrails
  • Light Switches
  • Soap Dispensers
  • Chair Handles

What is Cleaning?

Cleaning is the process of physically removing germs, dirt, and other impurities from surfaces.

To clean a surface, use an all-purpose cleaning agent and a microfiber cloth or terry rag to lift soils away.

How effective are cleaners?

Cleaning agents combined with the proper cleaning procedure removes almost all germs and soils from the surface.

CERTO Citrus HP Cleaner DegreaserIf you are using a cleaner to kill harmful germs, you actually haven’t killed anything.

Cleaning only removes germs and soils from the surface. It does not kill them. Germs that were not removed will continue reproducing and spreading.

Fact: Most bacteria reproduce by dividing themselves in two. In the right conditions, bacteria such as Escherichia coli, more commonly known as E.coli, can divide every 20 minutes. That means in 7 hours just one bacterium has produced over 2,097,152 germs.

To kill the organisms that are left behind from cleaning, a disinfectant must be applied to the surface.

What is Disinfecting?

Disinfecting kills germs.

Disinfectants do not clean soils from surfaces.

Disinfectants need to be used after cleaning agents because they can not break through soils on surfaces.

Pro Tip: If you are using a disinfectant to clean soils such as a soda spill or leftover food stains, you are not effectively removing the soils.

Trying to clean with a disinfectant will leave you with a sticky and smelly surface after the disinfectant dries.

To kill germs, most disinfectants contain either quaternary ammonium chloride (QUATS), peroxide (Hydrogen-Peroxide based), or hypochlorite (bleach-based).

Each type of disinfectant has its own advantages and disadvantages.

How effective are disinfectants?

Disinfectants kill 100% of germs listed on the manufacturers data when used properly. 

Pro Tip: Commercial cleaning products must be registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Clorox Total 360 Electrostatic Sprayer System

A commercial cleaning solution cannot be classified as a disinfectant unless it has been EPA tested and proven to kill 100% of the germs (that are listed on it's label) from a given surface.

For a disinfectant to be effective, it must dwell for the recommended dwell time.

The average dwell time for a disinfectant will vary by the disinfectant type and organisms you trying to kill. Hospitals will likely require a higher (hospital) grade disinfectant.

Disinfectants which do not remain wet for the recommended dwell time do not kill as many germs and are considered ineffective.

Pro Tip: What is Dwell Time?

Dwell time is the amount of time a disinfectant needs to remain wet on a surface to effectively disinfect (kill the organisms that are listed on it's label) the surface.

Different commercial cleaning chemicals require different dwell times based on the EPA registration and contact time required for each organism. Commercial cleaning products which are not used with the proper dwell time and removal process are not effectively disinfecting and are not meeting EPA requirements.

Refer to your chemical manufacturer’s data for the proper dwell time for each organism type.

Surfaces that are not properly disinfected increase the chance of spreading germs and causing illness throughout your facility.

If you miss even an inch of surface or you have not let the disinfectant dwell for the proper time, you are allowing germs to reproduce and continue spreading.

Disinfecting can be done in a one or two-step process.

One-Step Process

In the one-step disinfecting process, cleaning and disinfecting are performed at the same time with a product labeled as cleaner/disinfectant or disinfectant/cleaner.

Cleaners/disinfectants remove and kill germs at the same time.

Make sure to let the cleaner/disinfectant dwell for the recommended dwell time. The proper dwell time is critical to ensure the killing of all organisms (listed on the products label) on a surface.

Pro Tip: Sometimes the use of combined cleaners/disinfectants are not as effective as the two-step method.

Cleaners/disinfectants cannot properly remove heavier soils, which is needed to allow the disinfectant to fully kill all (labeled) organisms on the surface.

Two-Step Process

In the two-step disinfectant process, the surface is cleaned and disinfected using two different products.

First, a cleaning agent is applied to remove visible and loose soils from the surface or object.Rubbermaid HYGEN™ Microfiber General Purpose Cloth - Green

Use a microfiber cloth to apply disinfectant to the surface.

Choose a color cloth for each different surface in your facility to avoid potential cross-contamination.

Second, a disinfectant is applied to the surface or object.

Make sure you let the disinfectant remain wet on the surface for the recommended dwell time.

Dwell time, listed kill claims, and the removal process will determine how effective your disinfecting procedure actually is. If you are not adhering the manufacturer's recommended dwell time for labeled organisms, the product will not reach its stated efficacy.

A reduction in the amount of germs your product is actually killing will allow germs to reproduce and continue spreading throughout your facility.


Final Thoughts

Although reducing germs is important in any facility, different facilities will require different cleaning products and procedures depending on the frequency, surfaces, and cleaning requirements and expectations of the business.

Let an EBP Chemical Specialist review your current cleaning products and procedures to help you identify any gaps in your cleaning and disinfecting procedures. EBP can help you develop an effective cleaning program and recommend the best products, processes, and training for your facility and budget.

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About Glenn Rasin

Glenn Rasin is the Chemical Specialist for EBP Supply Solutions and Lead Trainer for the EBP Training Academy, which offers CMI-certified training courses for supervisory and front-line cleaning professionals throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. He is an ISSA CMI-certified trainer, with over 35 years of experience in the janitorial and sanitation industry.