Disinfecting, Sterilizing, and Sanitizing

Is there a Difference?

person holding cleaning supplies

Ahh, winter. The cold crisp mornings, the smell of hot coffee. The invasion of microbes? That’s right. It’s cold and flu season again! How can you protect your family from all those nasty germs? Did you know that sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing are 3 completely different techniques for killing or removing microbes? Did you know that most commercial and household cleaners that you can purchase are full of toxic chemicals? How can you both keep your home clean and free of toxins? Read on to find out!

Sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing are actually 3 different techniques for reducing the microbial load on surfaces. The microbial load is simply how many microbes are present on a surface. 

  • Sanitizing a surface is “process of reducing microbial contamination to an acceptable ‘safe’ level.” For example: mopping the kitchen floor with hot water and/or soap. The number of microbes is reduced by the action of removing them with water. However, there are still microbes present. On a kitchen floor, this is not usually a problem, since we don’t eat off the floor. 
  • Some surfaces need a higher level of clean, and for this we use a disinfectant. Disinfectants are chemical compounds that kill or inactivate almost all, but not all microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and others. For example, they may not be effective against bacterial or fungal spores. So, disinfectants kill microbes and reduce their presence, but may not kill every single microbe. Some examples include: quaternary ammonium compounds, chlorine compounds (bleach), hydrogen peroxide, strong acids and strong bases. Examples of disinfectants include sprays such as ‘Lysol,’ disinfectant wipes, etc. 
  • Sterilization is the most extreme of the three processes and is ‘the complete elimination or destruction of all forms of life by a chemical or physical means.’ With sterilization all forms of microbial life are killed on a surface. Examples of sterilization include: autoclaving (steam sterilization), radiation, dry heat, or other chemical methods. Sterilization is not a method that is normally used in people’s homes or businesses. Sterilization is used in industrial settings when creating products that must be sterile, such as sterile water solutions for hospitals or for sterilizing medical devices.

What do I need to disinfect? What is ok just to sanitize?

For most household cleaning, sanitizing is sufficient to prevent the spread of disease. Some surfaces in your home (or office) should be routinely sanitized to prevent the spread of germs especially high touch surfaces such as: door knobs, computer keyboards and mice, sink handles, light switches, telephones, microwave buttons and doors. If someone in your home or office has a confirmed contagious disease (flu, colds, etc.) disinfection as well as sanitizing should be used. Always sanitize first to reduce the microbial load, then disinfect. 

In the Kitchencracking an egg

Floors, walls, windows, tables, and cabinets only need sanitizing to reduce the microbial load in those areas. All surfaces in the kitchen should be sanitized often to keep microbial levels low. Food preparation surfaces should be disinfected as well. Harmful microbes such as Salmonella, Staphlococcus aureus, and E. coli can be found in raw meat and egg products. Any surfaces in contact with raw meat or eggs should be disinfected. Fortunately, dishwashers are excellent at disinfection using detergent and hot water. Some dishwashers are even equipped with a sanitizing hot water rinse as an option. When family members are sick, using the additional hot water rinse will help eliminate more of the infectious microbes. When hand washing dishes, such as knives, that cannot be washed in a dishwasher, use water that is above 171F for rinsing. This helps ensure that as many microbes on the surface as possible are killed.

For Bathrooms and During Illnesshand washing

For bathrooms, most areas only need sanitizing like cabinets, walls, floors, sinks, and tubs. Sink handles, light switches, door knobs and other high touch areas should be first sanitized and then disinfected if family members are ill. If family members are contagious, try to isolate the family member to one room, and allow him or her to only use one bathroom. If other family members are still well, have them use a different bathroom if possible. After the family member is no longer contagious, first sanitize and then disinfect the areas of the bathroom and bedroom that are high touch or have been soiled. For flu, you must be fever free for 24 hours to be considered no longer contagious. For bacterial infections, you must have taken antibiotics for at least 24 hours to be no longer contagious. For other contagious diseases, it depends on the disease as to how long you are contagious. Ask your doctor to learn more.

Young children are more likely to both be sick and spread disease because they are not as aware of good hygiene habits as adults. Help young children stay well by encouraging hand washing often, especially before eating, after returning from school or an outing, and after using the toilet.

Household Cleaners, the EPA, and the Truth

Household cleaners are not food, drugs, or firearms, so the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) does not regulate them. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) only requires manufacturers of cleaning products to list ingredients that are active disinfectants or could cause potential harm. Manufacturers of commercial cleaning products for homes and businesses are not required to list all of their ingredients for consumers by any agency of the United States. They can claim that ingredients are a trade secret, and not disclose them on the product labels. The truth is that they can legally use just about anything in a cleaning product leaving you the consumer in the dark about its true safety and effectiveness.

What cleaners can I use that are safe around my kids and pets? I have asthma or allergies. What cleaners can I use safely?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a “non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment.” EWG has created a database and guide for healthy cleaning in an easily searchable format called  EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. The EWG Guide can help you to find safer cleaning products and check products that you already use for safety. You may find that the products you already use are not safe or that they can cause respiratory distress. The EWG Guide “contains information and hazard assessments for 2,109 products, 197 brands and more than 1,000 ingredients.” Product ingredients are rated with a high, moderate, or low risk based on different categories. Products are given a final rating of ‘A’ to ‘F’ based on the safety of chemicals present in the product and whether or not the ingredients are listed completely on the label. Ratings of ‘A’ being the safest and ‘F’ being the most dangerous or that have the least information available. To learn more about how the EWG guide was created go to https://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners/content/methodology

Remember that smelling good does not indicate that something is clean! In fact ‘fragrance’ can be anything in a product that gives it a smell from essential oils from plants to industrial petrochemicals. Cleaning and personal care product manufacturers are required to list their ingredients on the label of the products. However, because of a loophole in government regulations (specifically the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973), they are not required to list any fragrance ingredients. This means that they can use any chemical they choose to add smell to a product, including dangerous, allergenic, and even toxic chemicals. To learn more about hidden fragrance chemicals in personal care products go to: https://www.ewg.org/research/not-so-sexy 

Our government does not regulate personal care products or cleaning products in a way that allows consumers to have all the facts about a product before they use it. Because of this, we urge you to learn all you can before using a product in your home. Cleaning products affect air quality, especially if ventilation is not used during cleaning. Remember whether sanitizing or disinfecting, use good ventilation when using cleaning products.

Cleaning Products for Sanitizing, Disinfecting, and Sterilizing

These suggestions are just that, suggestions. Different people react differently to different products. Products some people can use may cause allergic reactions in others. You know yourself and your home best. Please do your own research on any product you use in your home or on your skin by going to www.ewg.org, and learn all the facts for yourself.

For Sanitizing 

White vinegar, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and ordinary dish soap (not antimicrobial) are excellent cleaners.* Remember not to mix hydrogen peroxide with any other chemical when cleaning and to wear latex or nitrile gloves. For more information about sanitizing, check out our previous blog posts Essential Oils for a Healthy Home, A Simple Guide to Cleaning Mold, and the Winter Guide to Spring Cleaning.

For Disinfecting

Remember that disinfectants are needed only when an area or surface is in a high risk area – an area or place that is frequently soiled by contact with hands, bodily fluids, or food that could be contaminated (eggs, raw meat, etc). Disinfectants are more dangerous to use because they contain much stronger chemicals than sanitizers. There are only 3 disinfectants on the EWG Guide that received a rating of B. There were no disinfectants that received the top rating of A. Most disinfectants contain fragrance and much more toxic chemicals than sanitizers. The top three include: LYSOL Brand III Disinfectant All Purpose Cleaner Spray 4-in-1, Orange, LYSOL Professional Disinfectant Basin Tub & Tile Cleaner, and Windex Multi-Surface Disinfectant Cleaner. Remember to check out the EWG guide for yourself to learn specific chemicals that are in disinfectants and learn more about the ingredients used.

Special Section on Mold

Mold can cause indoor air quality problems whether you have allergies and asthma or not. It’s easy to take care of mold as a homeowner, but it’s also a good idea to know when to call in the pros. If the area of mold covers more than around 10 square feet, there is a good chance the mold problem is more than an isolated issue. Mold is great at hiding in hard to detect locations. A mold inspection by Branch Environmental can help you get to the bottom of the problem.

To learn more about cleaning small areas of mold check out our Simple Guide To Cleaning Mold

We’re Here When You Need Us

Don’t let mold cause problems in your home! Remember what to do: ventilate to remove moisture and clean surface areas of mold as soon as you see them forming. If it still smells musty, call us! 

Call Branch Environmental. We’re experts not only at mold removal, but at determining and remediating the underlying causes. From hidden mold sources to major contaminants. We can identify exactly what is going on in your home and rid it of environmental toxins, often for good.

Now you know the difference in the three cleaning techniques, and that they are not created equal! We hope that we have given you some food for thought about the products you use in your home, and how they can affect air quality and your health. Happy cleaning, and may your stay well this cold and flu season!

Branch Environmental – Because nobody should live or work in a building that makes them sick.

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Blog information is NOT intended to provide or replace medical advice. NO information on this site should be used to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition.

*We are an Amazon affiliate company and we do occasionally receive compensation for products that you purchase through links on our website.

Suggestions for products to use are just that, suggestions. Different people react differently to different products. Products some people can use may cause allergic reactions in others. You know yourself and your home best. Please do your own research on any product you use in your home or on your skin by going to www.ewg.org, and learn all the facts for yourself. Thank you.