Glenn Rasin

By: Glenn Rasin on July 9th, 2021

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A Facility’s Guide to Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting

Protecting your guests and building occupants’ health and safety is important. Cleaning is one of the most effective ways to lower the risk of illness by removing germs and contaminants from high-touch surfaces in your building. 

But, what do we mean by cleaning? 

During facility maintenance procedures, specifically when it comes to “cleaning”, the words clean, sanitize, and disinfect are often used interchangeably. 

While these terms are commonly referred to as “one in the same”, cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are actually different, and should be used in different situations.

Knowing the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting can help you to know exactly what cleaning products to buy, and how to use them in order to keep your facility a clean and safe environment.

To begin, we’ll define cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting and how they differ. 

What's the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are all different. 

Cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting can be looked at by germ removal efficacy on a spectrum, with cleaning as the least effective at removing germs and disinfecting as the most and sanitizing somewhere in between. 

What is cleaning? 

Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and other impurities from surfaces, but doesn't necessarily KILL germs and other contaminants. However, by removing germs and contaminants, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.

Cleaning products remove 97% of germs and soils from the surface when used according to the manufacturer’s directions. This means that there is at least another 3% of germs and contaminants that were not removed and will continue reproducing and spreading. To further reduce the number of germs that were left behind from cleaning, a sanitizer or disinfectant must be applied to the surface.

Click here to skip to learn more about the cleaning process

What is sanitizing? 

Sanitizing lowers the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level (as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)) by removing them. When you sanitize, you are reducing the number of bacteria present by 99.9%. As a result, this process does not KILL all germs. 

Sanitizing is better than cleaning alone, but disinfectants are more effective.

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What is disinfecting? 

Disinfecting kills 100% of germs on surfaces or objects that are listed on the manufacturer's label when used properly. 

Disinfecting will only be effective if a surface is first cleaned. 

Pro Tip: Disinfectants must be registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 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 its label) from a given surface.

Disinfection usually requires the product to remain on the surface for a certain period of time (e.g., letting it stand for 3 to 10 minutes). On a product label, this is commonly referred to as dwell time

Click here to skip to learn more about the disinfecting process

Cleaning 101

What Surfaces Should Be Cleaned?  

Immediately clean any surfaces and objects that are visibly soiled. This includes any high touch surfaces, floors, or other areas. 

When Should You Clean? window_shade_cleaning_supplies1

A surface should be cleaned when there are visible soils or residues. Cleaning is the only process that will remove soils from a surface. 

A surface should also always be cleaned before sanitizing or disinfecting. 

Cleaning removes loose soils preparing the surface or object to be sanitized or disinfected. Sanitizing or 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 sanitizer or disinfectant.

How to Clean

Cleaning works by using soap (or detergent) and water to physically remove germs from surfaces. 

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

Always follow the directions on the cleaning product that you are using. For some cleaners, you should rinse with water to remove any leftover soap or detergent residues.

Sanitizing 101 

What Surfaces Should Be Sanitized? 

Surfaces should only be sanitized after they have been cleaned. Sanitizers do not clean soils from surfaces; they are only certified to kill bacteria with up to 99.97% efficacy. They are not certified to kill viruses, fungi, or spores. 

Sanitizers can be used anywhere disinfectants are used but with the knowledge it does not provide complete germ kill. It is recommended to sanitize areas that are touched frequently but where 100% disinfection is not required such as on desks, tables, computer keyboards, and checkout areas.  

Sanitizers provide more efficiency given their shorter dwell times when compared to disinfectants. However, it is important to remember they do not provide as effective germ kill. 

Sanitizing is also commonly done in the foodservice industry where disinfectants are too strong and are not approved for use on food contact surfaces. 

To learn more about sanitizing and food-grade sanitizers, visit our article:

Food Grade Sanitizer: What are approved sanitizers for foodservice?

When Should You Sanitize?

Sanitizing should be done when you are trying to reduce the number of germs in an area. This is best used in situations where there is a lower risk of illness-causing germs. 

How to Sanitize 

T0NLC0 New Washroom Cleaning Banner Ad - EBP Supply Solutions_cleaner (002)Apply a sanitizer to a pre-cleaned surface either with a wipe or via spray bottle. 

If using a spray bottle, let the product sit for the required dwell time listed on the label and then remove it with a microfiber cloth.

Remember, sanitizers are not as effective at killing germs as disinfectants, but generally have much shorter dwell times. 

Disinfecting 101

When Should You Disinfect?

Surfaces should only be disinfected after they have been cleaned. Disinfectants do not clean soils from surfaces unless they are labeled as a cleaner/disinfectant such as those used in the one-step disinfecting process. Disinfectants need to be used after cleaning agents because they can not break through soils on surfaces.

Disinfectants should be used in high risk areas where the risk of germ spread is greater. 

The frequency of disinfection will depend on the level of risk in the area. For example, high-risk areas, or areas that are likely to spread germs because they are frequently touched should be disinfected often. 

How to Disinfect 

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

One-Step Disinfection Process

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

This type of disinfectant is recommended if a surface is not visibly dirty. 

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

Make sure to let the cleaner/disinfectant dwell for the recommended wet dwell time based on the organism you are trying to kill. Refer to the product’s label for dwell times.  

Pro Tip: Sometimes the use of combined cleaners/disinfectants is not as effective as the two-step method.  Cleaners/disinfectants can not properly remove heavy soil loads, allowing for the disinfectant to fully kill all germs on the surface. 

Two-Step Disinfection Process

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

Unlike in the one-step process, if a surface is visibly dirty, the two-step process should be used. This is because, as mentioned earlier, disinfectants can not break through soils and residues left on a surface and will not be effectively killing germs. 

First, a cleaning agent is applied to remove visible and loose soils from the surface or object. 

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

Make sure to let the disinfectant dwell for the recommended wet dwell time on the disinfectant’s label.

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 the disinfectant’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 label for the proper dwell time for each organism type.

What Surfaces Should Be Disinfected? 

Typically, hard, non-porous surfaces and objects that are touched often should be disinfected at least once a day, such as: Disinfect Common Touchpoints

  • Desks
  • Countertops
  • Doorknobs
  • Computer Keyboards
  • Faucet Handles
  • Phones 

To learn how to disinfect carpet and other soft surfaces, check out this article:

How to Disinfect Carpet in Your Facility


Final Thoughts

Cleaning is critical to the health and safety of your guests. 

Remember, cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are three different procedures, even though many commonly use the terms interchangeably. 

Cleaning is used to remove soils and residues from surfaces 

Sanitizing removes as much as 99.9% of germs, while disinfecting refers to killing 100 percent of germs on surfaces or objects. 

Disinfectants and sanitizers do not necessarily clean dirty surfaces, but they do kill germs, helping to lower the risk of infection. Before disinfecting or sanitizing, a surface must first be cleaned. Neither a disinfectant or sanitizer can not breakthrough soils and residues that are on a surface. 

Let an EBP Chemical Specialist review your current cleaning procedures.  EBP can develop an effective cleaning program and recommend the best products 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.