Sanitize vs. Disinfect: The Difference Matters More Than You Think

The world is home to at least five million trillion species of bacteria. That’s five, followed by 30 zeroes. You can find them in the atmosphere at least 40 miles high and seven miles below the ocean floor.

On top of those bacteria are the 219 species of virus known to infect humans. There are many other fungi, worms, and parasites that cause diseases, too.

Fortunately, cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting can help prevent the spread of germs. However, you must know what to clean vs. sanitize vs. disinfect means. That’s because not all three can kill germs.

To that end, we came up with this guide covering all three processes. Read on to learn the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting.

Sanitize vs. Disinfect: The Difference Is in the Numbers

Sanitizers are chemicals designed to cut germ populations by at least 99.9%. In the food industry, a sanitizer must remove 99.999% of germs on surfaces within 30 seconds. If used outside the food sector, a sanitizer must reduce the number of germs by at least 99.9%.

In short, to sanitize means to reduce harmful germs to safe levels.

By contrast, disinfectants must be able to kill 99.999% of germs on contact. “On contact” is the length of time the solution must sit on a surface undisturbed. All disinfectants must indicate the contact surface time in their directions.

So, by definition, disinfecting means to inactivate or destroy germs irreversibly. The Environmental Protection Agency says that disinfectants kill more germs than sanitizers.

The Similarities Between Sanitizing and Disinfecting

Sanitizing and disinfecting both use chemicals to reduce germ populations on surfaces. Both must remove enough germs to bring their numbers to a “safe level.” Safe levels, in turn, vary depending on public health requirements or standards.

Both sanitizers and disinfectants registered with the EPA also fall under “antimicrobial pesticides.”

However, the EPA runs more rigorous tests on disinfectants than sanitizers. That’s why you won’t find any sanitizer-only products on the EPA’s List N of disinfectants. List N Products are only those with approved virus claims, such as those against SARS-CoV-2.

With that said, many EPA-registered sanitizers are also approved as disinfectants. The agency tested these products using both the sanitizer and the disinfectant standards.

Most sanitizers and disinfectants also work better when used on a clean surface. For this reason, experts recommend cleaning surfaces first before sanitizing or disinfecting them.

Cleaning: A Must Before Your Either Sanitize or Disinfect Surfaces

Cleaning is the physical removal of dirt, debris, and grime. You can clean surfaces with water and commercial cleaning products like regular soap.

Cleaning doesn’t always get rid of germs, but it helps lower their populations. The fewer germs there are on a surface, the lower their risk of spreading.

Cleaning also helps maintain the effectiveness of sanitizers and disinfectants. That’s because dirt, debris, and organic materials can compromise the disinfection process. These contaminants may impair the sanitizers’ or disinfectants’ active ingredients.

That’s why you should always clean surfaces before you sanitize or disinfect them. A good strategy is to pre-rinse, clean, rinse again, and then dry surfaces. After these steps, you can then use either a sanitizer or a disinfectant.

Examples of Sanitizers

Hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol are some of the most popular types of sanitizers. The specific type of alcohol used can either be ethanol, ethyl alcohol, or isopropanol. It’s important to use hand sanitizers with 60% or more alcohol, as any less than this is ineffective.

Aside from hand sanitizers, the following also work as sanitizing agents.

Hypochlorite Sanitizers

Bleach is the most common type of hypochlorite-based sanitizer. The EPA also approves it as a disinfecting agent. It kills pathogens like Staph and many other types of bacteria, fungi, and viruses.

Bleach doesn’t kill bacterial spores, though, and is less effective when used in hot water. So, be sure to dilute it in water with a temperature of between 55° F and 75° F.

Quaternary Ammonia

You may better know these products as “QUATs.” They can kill some species of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Most QUATs require a surface contact time of at least 10 minutes.

As with bleach, the EPA has also approved some QUATs for disinfecting uses. Some Lysol products, such as its all-purpose cleaner, is part of the EPA’s List N.

Iodine-Based Sanitizers

These products use iodine compounds or iodophors. They act fast and work against most bacterial species. Povidone-iodine, such as Betadine, is one example.

Betadine isn’t part of the EPA List N, though. In fact, only the iodine-based ZZZ Disinfectant is part of this list.

Examples of Disinfectants

Many EPA List N disinfectants use either hypochlorite or QUATs. Clorox is one of the most common of these hypochlorite-based disinfectants. Clorox QS, also EPA-registered, uses QUATs as its main active ingredient.

Aside from bleach and QUATs, below are other common examples of disinfectants.


At 70% concentration, ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is effective against the flu virus. It’s more powerful against germs than isopropyl alcohol. Most EPA List N ethanol disinfectants use other ingredients like phenols or QUATs.

Many other disinfectants use isopropyl alcohol, also known as isopropanol. You’ll find these in surgical hand scrubs, wet wipes, and household cleaners. Be sure to use at least 70% isopropyl alcohol when cleaning your hands or surfaces.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide destroys germ cells and deactivates some bacteria, viruses, molds, and fungi. Researchers also say that it can inactivate influenza viruses. EPA-registered hydrogen peroxide products include disinfectant wipes, sprays, and all-purpose cleaners.

Cleaning Always Come First Before Sanitizing or Disinfecting

There you have it, your ultimate guide on what to clean vs. sanitize vs. disinfect means. The most crucial thing is to always clean before you either sanitize or disinfect. Also, always follow the sanitizer’s or disinfectant’s instructions, especially their contact time.

Ready for more tips and tricks to keep your home as germ-free as possible? Then be sure to check out the rest of our home guides!


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