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This Is What You Need To Know About Cleaning Vs. Disinfecting

clean or disinfect

Most of the time, the information I share here on my blog takes the form of practical tips or useful tutorials. But every once in a while, I feel compelled to dive deeper into certain topics, particularly when a better understanding of that topic can help us keep ourselves and our families safe!

For instance, I’ve written about the difference between hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol, as well as the difference between baking soda and baking powder. Today’s post is cut from a similar cloth, because today we’ll be exploring the difference between cleaning versus disinfecting.

Understanding the distinction is especially crucial given the current coronavirus pandemic, because keeping our homes clean will help us stay safe and healthy! This post should give you a much clearer understanding of the various methods of germ removal, and which one you ought to use when.

Related: 7 Surprising Things You Should Not Be Disinfecting

Cleaning Versus Disinfecting: What’s The Difference?

There are three main benchmarks you can shoot for when removing dirt and/or bacteria from a surface: cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. Each benchmark is slightly different, so it’s worth taking the time to understand what those differences are.

clean or disinfect

What Is Cleaning?

Cleaning is the process of removing visible dirt, debris, and dust from a surface, and may or may not include tidying up or organizing the space. Cleaning agents usually contain some sort of soap or detergent that lifts dirt from the surface so it can be removed manually.

While it isn’t the primary goal, cleaning can manually reduce the number of germs on a surface.

clean or disinfect

What Is Sanitizing?

The goal of sanitization is to eliminate pathogens, or microorganisms that can cause disease. Sanitizing a surface reduces some, but not all, of the total number of germs present.

Sanitizing is particularly important when it comes to food preparation in order to avoid making people sick. Restaurants typically sanitize their surfaces and tools with cleaning chemicals or with extreme heat (like the hot water from a steam cleaner or dishwasher).

clean or disinfect

What Is Disinfecting?

Unlike sanitizing, disinfecting isn’t just about eliminating pathogens—the goal is to kill all microorganisms that are present on a surface. Disinfecting is particularly important in places like hospitals, where the spread of infection can have deadly results.

Disinfection can be achieved with EPA-approved chemicals, including disinfecting wipes, bleach solutions, and alcohol solutions, or using UV-C light. This germicidal ultraviolet light breaks up the DNA of germs, rendering them incapable of reproducing or causing harm.

clean or disinfect

Should I Clean, Sanitize, Or Disinfect?

Now that we’re all on the same page as to what cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting mean, we can explore when it makes sense to use each method!

clean or disinfect

Clean Daily

Cleaning should be done most frequently, as often as every day, according to your needs and the amount of activity in your house. Basic housekeeping helps slow the growth of harmful pathogens and keeps your home more orderly and hygienic.

Cleaning should always come first, even if you ultimately want to sanitize or disinfect something. Sanitizers and disinfectants can’t do their jobs as effectively when they’re applied to dirty surfaces, so it’s important to wipe away grime before using those products.

clean or disinfect

Sanitize Frequently

Sanitizing certain surfaces helps keep your home healthy and hygienic. Use an all-purpose cleaner to sanitize the most frequently touched surfaces in your home daily, like your countertops, doorknobs, light switches, and common area furniture.

Other items around your house can be sanitized as needed. For instance, you should sanitize anything that has come into contact with bodily fluids ASAP. To sanitize clothing and linens, simply wash them in hot water.

clean or disinfect

Disinfect As Needed

Sanitizing surfaces can help keep you healthy, but if someone in your house is already sick or has a compromised immune system, you should be disinfecting instead. When using disinfecting wipes or sprays, it’s absolutely crucial to read and follow the directions on the label.

If you don’t use a disinfecting product according to its directions, you can’t be certain that you’re actually killing germs. And since we’re talking about people’s health here, that uncertainty could have seriously dire consequences!

Note: In response to the current coronavirus pandemic, the CDC currently recommends that we clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces around our homes daily. There is currently no cure or vaccine for COVID-19, so it’s important to follow recommendations like these to help reduce your risk of getting sick.

Important Tips For Cleaning & Disinfecting

  • Nearly all sanitizing and disinfecting products need to remain on a surface for 4-10 minutes to effectively kill germs and bacteria. That means you must apply a sufficient amount of the solution to keep the surface wet the entire time, and then allow it to air dry. (Afterwards, surfaces used for food preparation or eating should be rinsed with fresh water and dried with a clean towel.)
  • Never mix chemicals when cleaning or disinfecting. Some chemical reactions produce toxic gases that can result in lung damage or even death! Always ensure the area is well-ventilated when using any type of cleaning product.
  • Wear protective eyewear and gloves when using harsh chemicals. And always wash your hands with soap and warm water after cleaning, sanitizing, or disinfecting!

What’s your best tip for keeping your home (relatively) germ-free?

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Homekeeping Tips

  • I know hot water can kill germs and bacteria, but many of today’s clothes recommend washing in warm or cool water. I would never wash my nylon underwear, nor my husband’s “tidy whities” in hot water because the elastic loses it’s stretch and cotton clothes will shrink . Bleach does the same thing, shortening the life of not inexpensive underwear. Same with anything that is all cotton, unless it specifically says it is pre-shrunk. Any other ideas on disinfecting these types of clothing? Thank you.

  • No bleach, clorox, clorox wipes, peroxide or alcohol in any of the stores in my neighborhood. Been trying to buy them for a couple of months. I live in a suburban area – not in a rural area. Really need some clorox for my laundry! I’ve resorted to buying Oxiclean.

  • Hi Jillee! I use the spray bottles from Dollar Tree and sometimes Walmart for undiluted vinegar or undiluted Clorox for cleaning and disinfecting. The vinegar and bleach corrode the spray bottles. They eventually stop working. You posted something once about chemical spray bottles that cost a couple of dollars, but I can’t find the post. I’ve even used the search bar, but it doesn’t take me to that particular comment. Please help! I’m cleaning and disinfecting more than ever bc of the pandemic.

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  • disinfecting kills all germs, even the ones that are beneficial to us. if you disinfect, you are killing the germs that will keep you healthy, which in turn will cause you to reduce your immunity. dangerous. there are bacteria and viruses all around us, inside us, outside of us on our skin. we essentially live in a petri dish and constant exposure to bacteria and viruses is what keeps us healthy. Read “Eat Dirt” by Dr. Josh Axe or watch Dr. Erickson’s 4/22 media interview on Youtube to get more info.

  • Using Hydrogen peroxide is a great way to kill germs–A much better way to kill germs than using Clorox is using Thieves Household Cleaner–you don’t have to worry about side effects like you do when using Clorox.

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