• Emily Moir

What Are the Differences Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting?

Updated: Dec 10, 2021

What does it mean to clean something as opposed to sanitizing it? Do sanitizing and disinfecting mean the same thing?

These three terms are often used by cleaning and hygiene services providers on their websites, and the word ‘sanitize’ is now synonymous with Covid-19 pandemic regulations. All three words refer to removing dirt or germs, but as much as we might use them interchangeably at times, especially ‘disinfect’ and ‘sanitize’, they don’t have the same meanings. The same goes for ‘sanitizers’ and ‘disinfectants.’

Let's clear up the confusion between these words and take a look at the definitions and differences.

This is what it means to…


Cleaning involves soap, water, and scrubbing/rubbing of hands to remove visible dirt, dust, and organic matter, as well as some germs, from a surface. Cleaning does not kill germs on a surface, nor does it remove all of them.

Something can be clean (it looks spotless and smells fresh) but it does not mean it is necessarily pathogen-free. It doesn’t even necessarily mean the number of germs on the surface has been lowered to a safe level.

A surface must be cleaned before it can be either sanitized or disinfected, as dirt or debris on a surface will block disinfectants and sanitizers, preventing them from doing their job.


Sanitizing goes further than cleaning, but not quite as far as disinfecting. It eradicates some pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses that are on a surface, but does not eliminate them all or kill the growth of these germs. Rather, sanitizing reduces the number of germs to a safe level, using chemical products to do so and not just soap and water.

A common cleaner used to sanitize is a solution of water and a low concentration of bleach (a higher concentration of bleach and the solution becomes a disinfectant capable of eliminating all surface germs.)

Sanitizers are used more on food contact surfaces than disinfectants, as they are safer. Disinfectants can only be used on such surfaces if they contain chemicals proven to be food safe.


Disinfecting kills or inactivates all harmful pathogens – fungi, viruses, and bacteria – on a hard surface or object, by using chemicals such as alcohol or bleach. The main difference between a disinfectant and a sanitizer is that a disinfectant involves stronger chemicals or solutions with higher concentrations of active chemicals.

Medical facilities such as hospitals rely on disinfecting, as opposed to just sanitizing, to keep their environments germ-free, safe, and hygienic.

Disinfecting something does not necessarily include cleaning it to remove visible dirt, however, and a surface must be cleaned in order for it to be properly disinfected or sanitized.

Disinfectants must usually be left on a surface for a length of time specified on their labels, to give them a chance to kill the pathogens.

Safety tips to remember when cleaning, sanitising, or disinfecting:

· You must clean a surface – remove oil, soil, or other visible dirt and debris – before attempting to sanitize or disinfect it, as dirt will block sanitizers and disinfectants from reaching surfaces, making them unable to eliminate pathogens

· Do not use disinfectant wipes to clean your hands; this is not safe

· When it comes to food-contact surfaces and objects, sanitizing and cleaning is safe, while disinfectants should not be used on such surfaces unless they contain food-safe chemicals

· Never mix bleach ammonia or with vinegar, as these mixtures produce poisonous gas

· Do not use industrial-strength bleach cleaners in child-care environments

What about sterilizing?

Sterilizing goes beyond cleaning, sanitizing, or disinfecting. To sterilize a surface or object means to eradicate not just all pathogens on it, but also all other forms of microorganisms that exist on it, including non-harmful ones.

Sterilizing generally is common in medical facilities and is less common when it comes to corporate or household environments except for in the case of, say, sterilizing babies’ bottles by boiling them in water.

Vogue Hygiene knows the difference and we clean, sanitize, and disinfect as appropriate

We are well-versed in the differences between, and best practices for, cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing. Vogue Hygiene's highly trained service teams use eco-friendly cleaning products to carry out each, ensuring clients’ facilities are low impact as well as hygienic and spotless.


Visit Vogue Hygiene to find out more about the hygiene and cleaning solutions we offer in Gauteng, Cape Town, and the Western Cape, or contact us for a free quote on our services.

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