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

If you’re not sure, you may not be doing any of them properly. Here’s the nitty gritty on helping kill harmful germs

By Claire Abittan
What’s the difference between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting?

Photo: Getty

Created for Microban 

When we talk about cleaning, we throw around a lot of neat lingo—but the distinctions are messy at best. Do you honestly know the difference between washing, disinfecting and sanitizing? You don’t have to be a germ expert to clean like one, but we spoke to Jason Tetro, the host of the award-winning Super Awesome Science Show and the bestselling author of The Germ Code and The Germ Files, to explain how germs on surfaces make you sick. Plus, he shares his go-to disinfectant products for long-lasting protection.

To start with, the differences are pretty simple: “Cleaning is a great way to remove dust and grime from surfaces, but just because a surface is visibly clean to the naked eye, it doesn’t mean it’s free of germs such as bacteria,” says Tetro, aka The Germ Guy. “Sanitizing or disinfecting is needed to lower or kill the bacteria on the surface, respectively.” 

Cleaning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces with soap (or detergent) and water. Although it doesn’t kill germs, it helps reduce them and lower the risk of spreading infection.

Sanitizing lowers the number of bacteria on inanimate objects significantly through the antimicrobial action of a product’s active ingredients. Tetro recommends using a product called Microban 24, designed to keep sanitizing against bacteria for up to 24 hours, even after multiple touches* on hard, non-porous, non-food-contact surfaces.

Disinfecting, on the other hand, destroys or irreversibly inactivates germs on surfaces or objects through the antimicrobial action of a product’s active ingredients. You’re not necessarily cleaning surfaces that look physically dirty or grimey; but by killing the germs, you’re further lowering the risk of spreading them. 

Microban sanitizing spray that says "Keeps surfaces sanitized against bacteria for up to 24 hours*"


Products like Microban 24 do double-duty to sanitize and disinfect, but it’s important to read the label and follow the instructions for the specific job. Whether you’re looking to sanitize or disinfect will change the way the product should be used, and knowing the difference is critical to get the job done right. 

“Not all exposures to bacteria lead to infection. Even if there are some that can make you sick, you still need to be exposed to a certain amount before you fall ill. It’s called the minimal infective dose,” explains Tetro. “Over time, a surface will accumulate and possibly grow bacteria leading to the achievement of that dose. We sanitize to kill bacteria.”

So, how do you deal with bacteria on different surfaces? Any surfaces we touch regularly will accumulate a lot of bacteria. Think about bathroom sink taps, remote controls, doorknobs and banisters. Those can easily accumulate bacteria, says Tetro. So, while sanitizers kill bacteria, once someone touches, drops something or sneezes on that spot again, bacteria can be reintroduced.

When you use a 24-hour sanitizer like Microban 24, it continues to work throughout the day. The line of products that includes a sanitizing spray,  multi-purpose cleaner and bathroom cleaner, is designed to keep killing 99.9% of bacteria on hard surfaces for up to 24 hours, even when contacted multiple times* by people in your household, including little ones and their sticky hands. Best of all, this type of product saves a ton of time and worry.

The science behind the products is known as residual activity, which is powered by a layer that binds the bacteria-fighting ingredient to the hard surface. “This means the sanitizing action continues long after you have applied the product,” says Tetro. “Microban 24 uses the approach to kill Enterobacter aerogenes and Staphylococcus aureus bacteria on hard surfaces for a full 24 hours* after application. This not only keeps your surfaces cleaner, but also reduces your workload and hopefully stress levels."


*When used as directed. Microban 24 does not provide 24-hour residual virus protection.

This article was originally published on May 21, 2020

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