Many people wonder what the real differences are between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting.

Cleaning, in general, is an action which removes the surface dirt, leaving surfaces looking clean and shiny. Remember that products such as a general purpose cleaner will wash away bacteria and germs, but they don’t actually kill them or inhibit their growth; for that, you need to look into disinfecting and sanitizing. Disinfectants and sanitizers only work on surfaces that have already been cleared of any larger particles. Sanitizing ensures that the surface will be considered hygienic as per the Local Public Health official guidelines. To go beyond those standards and to kill nearly all the germs and bacteria requires disinfecting.

To be labeled a sanitizer, a product must reduce microorganisms on a surface by 99.9% within 30 seconds. Disinfectants, on the other hand, must reduce the levels of pathogens by 99.999% within five to ten minutes. This may not seem like a huge difference, but most high contact surfaces contain millions of pathogens. Infection Prevention for Dummies likes to use this example: “On any given day, there are 102,465 commercial flights in the world. If 99.9 % of them landed safely then 1,025 airplanes would crash killing all on board. If 99.999 % landed safely then only 10 would crash every day.”

You should be wary of diluting disinfectants, since with enough water, it may simply turn in to a general purpose cleaner. Read the label.

All disinfectants will have their “kill claims” clearly labeled, along with the amount of time required for the product to be truly effective. Keep in mind that all disinfectants will have a DIN number, registering it as a disinfectant. As an example, the primary purpose of laundry bleach is to whiten clothing and as such, has no DIN number on it and will not kill any bacteria.

The recently identified “superbug” is the byproduct of that final 0.001% of bacteria which survives the disinfection, and now gets to feast on the corpses of his less successful relatives. You can cut down on the likelihood of this happening by alternating your sanitizers. Start with a bleach, then a Pine Sol or Lysol, followed by an isopropyl alcohol, and ending the cycle with an activated hydrogen peroxide product.

Thinking that one can spray a disinfectant on a dirty surface and simply wipe it up moments later will unfortunately accomplish very little. Please read the instructions.