Most of us have carried on our whole lives using products and terms interchangeably without realizing there is a significant difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. Now more than ever, it’s absolutely critical to understand the difference between merely cleaning for appearance versus cleaning for health.
So What Exactly is Cleaning?
Regular cleaning involves the use of detergents containing surfactants combined with agitation to remove visible dirt, soils, and only some germs from a surface. In layman's terms, surfactants are basically molecules that help loosen and trap dirt. We agitate the detergent with water and scrub to remove the dirt from the surface.
The key and most crucial part to remember here is that cleaning with typical household detergents does not kill bacteria, viruses or fungi, which are generally referred to as germs. We need to go one step further, if we want further protection from bacteria and pathogens.
Are Sanitizers also Cleaners?
To a certain extent yes - but using the terms cleaning and sanitizing interchangeably is incorrect. Sanitizers are products specifically designed to reduce viral load and other surface germs to safe levels according to public health standards. They are commonly used in commercial settings, where the frequent removal of invisible germs is necessary to protect the public’s health - such as in restaurant kitchens. The performance threshold for food contact sanitizers is 99.999%, meaning they kill 99.999% of germs.
The best way to understand the difference between sanitizers and detergents containing surfactants is to compare hand soap to hand sanitizer. Have you ever tried to sanitize your hands when they were a little dirty and ended up rubbing little bits of dirt between your hands? Hand soap doesn’t do that because the surfactants in the soap separate the dirt and germs from your hands which then slides right off with water.
If Sanitizers Kill 99.999% of Germs, What Do Disinfectants Do?
Disinfectants are all made differently, but all of them are designed to kill 99.9999% of pathogens after a designated contact time. When it comes to deadly microscopic viruses and bacteria, believe us when we say that extra 9 makes a big difference! Here’s the most critical part though: the contact time.
Pre-covid, most of us had a bottle of Lysol wipes kicking around - or some similar product that says “kills 99.9999% of germs!” right there on the label. So we spray and/or wipe without realizing that the usage instructions state that the product must sit wet for often up to 10 minutes before actually successfully killing viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Yikes!
This important overlooked fact generally means we are using disinfecting products that are not only nowhere near as effective at removing dirt as good old soapy detergents, but also not actually killing the germs we are most afraid of. In addition to the length of time a disinfectant needs to sit wet on a surface to be effective, it’s equally important to note that dirt and organic material can block a disinfectant from doing its job.
Now You Know
As professional cleaners, our advice is to always approach cleaning for health as a two-step process. First, use an effective cleaner to get rid of all the visible dirt and soil; then, follow up with a specially designed disinfectant that meets your needs around convenience, toxicity (there are really great non-toxic disinfectants on the market), price, and so forth.
And for SARS-CoV-2, remember to only use disinfectants registered with the EPA's N-list with an Emerging Viral Pathogens Claim. Only products listed here have been identified as effective options for use against this new virus.
Stay Well, Stay Informed.
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