Health & Science

Clean, Sanitize, Disinfect: What’s the Difference, and When To Use Each

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This article was reprinted with permission from Michigan State University Extension, Michigan State University’s statewide outreach organization.

Cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting. These words are being used a lot right now by the media, schools and even in conversations among friends, but do we know the difference? Mixing up these terms can result in poor cleaning practices and the spread of illness. Having a better understanding of these three words may help you prevent someone from becoming ill.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cleaning removes germs, dirt and impurities from surfaces and objects. Cleaning is done by using soap, detergent or another cleaning product and water, then physically scrubbing to remove germs from the surface. It is important to remember cleaning does not kill germs, mold or fungi—it just removes visible dirt. Before you can sanitize or disinfect, the dirt and debris must be removed.


Sanitizing reduces the number of germs on a surface to safe levels, according to health officials. This is done by using a commercial sanitizing product, such as chlorine bleach mixed with water. It is important to mix the sanitizing solution at the proper ratio of bleach to water—if it’s too strong it can cause chemical contamination, but if it’s too weak, it won’t kill the germs. It’s also important to let the solution stand on the surface for a recommended period of time.

The standard solution for a bleach and water sanitizing mix is one teaspoon bleach to one gallon of water, or 1/4 teaspoon bleach to one quart of water (in a spray bottle). This is based on concentrated household bleach containing 8.25% sodium hypochlorite. The concentration is 50–90 ppm and requires a contact time of 30 seconds. This solution can be tested to ensure the concentration’s strength by purchasing sanitizer test strips at a food service store. If sanitizer is stored in a spray bottle, it should ideally be tested daily to ensure the strength is still within the range of 50 – 90 ppm.


Disinfecting kills the germs on surfaces. This is done by using a stronger solution. If bleach is used, the solution recommended is 1/4 to 3/4 cup of bleach to one gallon of water, with a contact time of two minutes. This process can further lower the risk of spreading infection.

Should you disinfect all the time to ensure more germs are killed?

This probably isn’t the best idea. Chemicals are very strong and can have adverse results on health. Using the strongest concentration all the time can lead to skin irritation, lung problems and other issues. Remember, cleaning should always have the priority over sanitizing or disinfecting.

As you clean, remember to change your water frequently to avoid further spread of dirt or germs. In most situations, sanitizing would follow cleaning (always read the directions on the product you are using). You should only disinfect when there are a large number of germs present. For example, if someone has been sick in your home (vomit or diarrhea), or you’ve spilled a large amount of raw juices from a meat, poultry or seafood product on the floor, this would warrant cleaning followed by disinfecting.

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