Cleaning, Sanitizing and Disinfecting

Whether you use a professional maid service or clean your own home, does it really matter whether you sanitize or disinfect when you’re cleaning, as long as it gets clean? Many residential cleaning companies indicate that while these terms are often used interchangeably, the difference between sanitize and disinfect is a critical one. Let’s start with breaking down the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. Then, we’ll discuss sterilization and how to properly use EPA and CDC approved disinfectants.

Cleaning means organizing, decluttering, and wiping down surfaces so they appear neat and clean. All-purpose cleaners and plain old soap and water are great for lifting and removing smudges, spots, stains, and debris from surfaces. Cleaning products might remove some germs, but the result of cleaning is about how your home looks, feels, and smells.

While cleaners make your home look nice and tidy, there are some areas where you’ll want to step it up and deploy both cleaning and sanitizing (or disinfecting). Almost any cleaner will remove dirt and grime, but only a disinfectant or sanitizer will kill bacteria, viruses, or fungi.
Cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting all have different properties and applications:

  • Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and other impurities from surfaces, but doesn’t necessarily kill them.
  • Sanitizing lowers the number of germs on surfaces or objects—either by killing them or removing them—to a safe level, according to public health standards or requirements.
  • Disinfecting kills germs on surfaces or objects.

While these terms have different definitions, it might help to think of the relationship between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting as stairs, with cleaning at the bottom and disinfecting at the top. Cleaning removes dirt and odors, sanitizing reduces the amount of bacteria, and disinfecting kills the majority of viruses and harmful bacteria.

Sanitize vs. Disinfect

What is the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines sanitizers as products that can kill at least 99.9% of germs on hard surfaces—99.99% for surfaces used for food preparation and service. Disinfectants are stronger, killing 99.999% of germs on hard, non-porous surfaces or objects. The primary difference between sanitizers and disinfectants is strength; sanitizing solutions aren’t as strong as disinfecting solutions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes sanitizing as the reduction of bacteria on surfaces. In a broad sense, sanitizing refers to the safe management of potentially bacteria-rich materials, including human and animal waste. Sanitation works by using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces or objects, thus lowering the risk of infection.


What is the difference between cleaning and sanitizing? Cleaning makes your home look good, but sanitizing removes bacteria that can cause health issues. Sanitizing is necessary to minimize the spread of illness and for surfaces that come in contact with food. Sanitizers contain pathogens that reduce germs and fungi to prevent contamination and cross-contamination. For hand sanitizers, the CDC recommends using a formula with 60% to 95% alcohol concentration. For sanitizing most surfaces, use a formula with a minimum of 60% alcohol.

You can also sanitize some items and surfaces using a dishwasher, washing machine, or steam cleaner. The key to using appliances for sanitation is the temperature must exceed 170 degrees fahrenheit; that’s the temperature that kills germs and bacteria. Steam cleaning is useful for removing germs from porous surfaces that are difficult to sanitize using liquids or sprays, like fabric, carpets, and upholstery. If your washer doesn’t have a sanitize cycle, liquid laundry sanitizer can work alongside your normal detergent to help remove germs from your clothing.


Disinfecting goes beyond cleaning and sanitizing because it kills bacteria and viruses. If you have family members who are sick, you’ll need an approved disinfectant spray to get the job done. A quality disinfectant spray should remove 100 percent of the microscopic organisms on most hard surfaces. When used correctly, disinfectants stop the spread of diseases and viruses like colds and coronaviruses such as COVID-19.

One of our favorite housekeeping tips is to disinfect high-touch areas to minimize the spread of germs. Think of things like doorknobs, light switches, faucets, and cabinet pulls. To be effective, disinfecting solutions need to remain in contact with the surface for a specified length of time. The manufacturer’s label will tell you how long you should keep the surface wet for maximum effect.

Don’t skip cleaning before you disinfect. Dirt and organic debris can make some disinfectants less effective, so cleaning is necessary before disinfecting in most cases. Disinfectants are powerful tools for minimizing the spread of germs and viruses, but use them in moderation.
The EPA warns that the overuse of disinfectants is a growing public health concern. You should only use them when you absolutely need to and apply them as directed. Disinfectants are more toxic and more expensive than cleaning products, and what’s worse, excessive use may also lead to the spread of “superbugs.” These superbugs are germs that have become resistant to and are not easily killed by disinfectants or antibiotics.


Sterilizers are far more powerful than sanitizers and disinfectants, and cleaning vs. sanitizing isn’t even a contest. Sterilization is used for specific environments, and it’s not something the average person will do in their home. According to the CDC, sterilization is the process of destroying or eliminating all forms of microbial life.

Sterilization is most often used by healthcare facilities using physical or chemical methods. Steam under pressure, dry heat, and liquid chemicals are all effective sterilizers. These extreme levels of decontamination are necessary for surgery or in certain environments like laboratories. Disinfection eliminates harmful microorganisms, while sterilization kills all microorganisms.

CDC and EPA-Approved Disinfectants and How to Use Them

When you know the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting, you can make better decisions about cleaning and your family’s health. The CDC and EPA are valuable resources for learning about the effectiveness (and dangers) of cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants.

The EPA maintains a list of EPA-approved disinfectants that lists registered disinfectants, their active ingredients, and minimum contact times for effective disinfecting. Both the CDC and EPA provide relevant and updated information about how and when to use these products.

How to Use Disinfectants Effectively and Safely

Keeping your home clean and healthy becomes much easier when you use disinfectants correctly. As a refresher, here are a few points on safety:

  • Don’t mix disinfectants with other cleaning products
    Label diluted cleaning solution containers
  • Store and disinfectants and other chemicals out of the reach of children
    and pets
  • Don’t use disinfectants near children
  • Don’t breathe vapors from disinfectants or apply them directly to your skin
  • Don’t use disinfectants on pets, their bedding, or toys
  • Wearing gloves and a mask
  • Only disinfect when you have good ventilation
  • Follow the directions on the label to ensure safe and effective use
  • Use water at room temperature for dilution unless advised otherwise

You should routinely disinfect frequently touched areas to minimize the spread of germs. Any surface that is touched by more than one person on a daily basis is a good candidate. Here are some of the recommended surfaces:

  • Tables, desks, and countertops
  • Doorknobs, cabinet pulls, and drawer handles
  • Thermostats and light switches
  • Computer mice and keyboards
  • Phones, headsets, and remote controls
  • Toilets, faucets, and sinks

Disinfectant wipes are convenient for tackling the list above and may be more effective than using a spray disinfectant. When you spray disinfectant on a surface and then wipe it with a cloth or paper towel, you’re also wiping up the disinfectant. When you use a disinfectant wipe and let it dry, you give it more time to kill the organisms.

When someone in your home is sick with a communicable illness, you should disinfect more areas and surfaces more often. Check the label before you buy a disinfectant to make sure it works against the viruses you’re targeting. Pay extra attention to bathroom faucets—these are notorious for spreading cold and flu viruses. Machine wash sheets, blankets, and towels at the highest temperature and wash your hands after handling them.

The difference between sanitizing and disinfecting may not seem important, but using one when you should (or could) use the other makes a difference to germs and to your family’s health. If you use disinfectant by default, you could end up killing good bacteria along with the bad. If you use a sanitizer to get rid of viruses like Covid-19 instead of a disinfectant, you risk infection. Know when to use sanitizer and when to use disinfectant to keep your home—and your family—healthy.

Did you know The Maids is the only residential house cleaning company that cleans for health exclusively? Whether you choose regular weekly maid service or our advanced disinfecting services, we get rid of more dirt and germs than traditional house cleaning services. Get your free estimate today and find out how we can help you enjoy a cleaner and healthier home more often.

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