The difference between cleaning, sanitising, disinfecting, and sterilising

Is there a real difference between cleaning, sanitising, disinfecting and sterilising?

This is a question we hear a lot in the cleaning industry. The short answer is yes – there are some fundamental differences between these processes and the products used for each. Here's the longer version:

Cleaning

Cleaning is simply the removal of any visible particle (like dust, food, and oil) from any surface. The process of cleaning usually involves the use of detergent, which is a surfactant designed to suspend oily and greasy particles in water, helping to remove them more easily from a surface.

The cleaning process does't necessarily kill germs and bacteria. It will however lower the number of germs and bacteria on a surface and therefore lower the risk of germs multiplying, and viruses or bacteria being spread.

Cleaning is a very important first step to effectively disinfect and sterilise as it removes any dirt and soil from a surface which could reduce a disinfectants ability to kill germs, viruses, and bacteria.

Sanitising

The process of sanitising is a step up from cleaning. It does't necessarily clean surfaces or remove staining and dirt, but rather reduces the number of bacteria on a surface to a safe level – it will remove up to 99.99% of bacteria in less than 30 seconds, reducing the risk of infection.

Some sanitisers are designed to be “no-rinse” which makes them effective for use in food preparation areas as the last step in a cleaning/sanitisation process for food prep surfaces. Another common application is sanitising children’s toys.

In order to sanitise a surface effectively, it MUST be cleaned properly first to remove any dirt or soiling.

Disinfecting

Unlike cleaning and sanitising, disinfection aims to kill all germs on a surface with the use of a range of chemicals including alcohol, ammonia and chlorine. Whether or not the disinfectant does in fact kill all the viruses on the surface will depend on a range of factors, including:

  • Disinfectant shelf life and quality
  • The suitability of the disinfectant for the application
  • The dilution rate used
  • The dwell time on the surface

Like sanitising, disinfection doesn't normally clean surfaces or remove staining and dirt, so to be effective a thorough cleaning process must been completed first.

Disinfection regimes are best performed regularly on areas that are touched frequently. Examples of these include light switches, door handles, keyboards, telephones, screens, remote controls, countertops, and more.

Sterilising

Sterilisation is typically used only in hospital and high grade medical or scientific environments. The sterilisation process is a level up from disinfection as it destroys all microorganisms on a surface or in a fluid, preventing any disease from being transmitted.

Sterilisation can be achieved with heat, high pressure, chemicals, irradiation, and filtration. Due to the higher process costs, it's not normally used in commercial cleaning and maintenance.