Disinfecting, Sterilizing and Sanitizing: 3 Definition of Terms

Disinfecting, Sterilizing, Sanitizing

Disinfecting, Sterilizing and Sanitizing: 3 Definition of Terms

When do you need each of these? Learn the meaning behind these common cleaning terms.


Keeping your home tidy and common surfaces clean might seem like an impossible task. But this is important for your health.
Imagine you have a dirty living space.
How do you decide what to disinfect and sterilize?
What equipment do you use to clean your living space?
How do you choose when it comes to disinfection vs sterilization vs sanitization?

Disinfecting and sterilizing are two types of decontamination, a process that makes something safe to touch. The purpose is to kill enough germs, so the risk of infection is extremely low.
Decontamination is different from cleaning, which can get rid of dust and dirt but may only remove some of the germs that are present.

We looked at what the experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had to say on the subject. Keep reading to learn the difference between disinfecting, sanitizing, and cleaning.


What it means to Disinfect vs. Sterilize vs. Sanitize

What do these terms mean and why can we not use them interchangeably?
All of these methods are antimicrobial processes that aim to kill germs to some degree. But there are differences to understand before choosing which mode of decontamination is best in your situation.

Disinfecting Sterilizing Sanitizing
Using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces. This process doesn’t necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, but killing germs on a surface after cleaning, can further lower the risk of spreading infection. A process of destroying or eliminating all forms of microbial life and is carried out in medical facilities by physical or chemical methods. A process of washing, cleaning or removing dirt, and eliminates dust, debris, and germs on the surface.
It doesn’t kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.



The process of disinfecting removes nearly 100 % of harmful pathogenic microorganisms and organisms on surfaces or objects, according to the CDC. Disinfecting doesn’t necessarily clean dirty surfaces, but it does kill germs, helping to lower the risk of infection.
An example of disinfecting in a home is typically in toilets, swimming pools, sinks, and diaper change areas.

Disinfectants are the availability of cleaning products that you can buy from the public. It’s possible to find disinfectants in spray, wipe, or other liquid forms, and you can even make your own products at home.

Depending on the type of disinfectant used, the product may need to be left on surfaces for as little as 20 minutes or as long as 12 hours.

What Is Considered a Disinfectant?

According to EPA standards, a disinfectant must kill 99.999 percent of germs, compared to 99.9 percent for sanitizers. While this difference might seem minimal, it can make a huge difference in reducing the spread of infection.



Sterilization is a process typically used by professionals in settings such as hospitals.

Sterilization removes all microorganisms including those that aren’t harmful. Sterilization is common in medical facilities, but it also is helpful for schools and businesses that want to get rid of germs in the environment.

Methods of sterilization:

  • infrared radiation
  • advanced filtration
  • hydrogen peroxide gas
  • ethylene oxide (EtO) gas
  • pressurized steam (autoclaving)
  • dry heat cabinets (for medical instruments)
  • ionizing radiation (typically used for medical equipment)

These extreme forms of decontamination are necessary for things like surgery, or in certain environments like laboratories or hospitals.

Due to potential dangers and intricacies, most sterilization methods are done by professionals only. Never attempt these methods on your own or allow an untrained professional to do.



Sanitizing refers to lowering the number of germs on a surface to a safe level.
The process of sanitizing can involve both cleanings (which physically removes germs from surfaces) and disinfect (which kills germs). Sanitizing is generally a little gentler than disinfecting.

It’s best to sanitize surfaces that don’t normally come into contact with dangerous germs or those that are cleaned without powerful chemicals.
For example, children’s toys or cooking tools would be best for sanitization.

What Is Considered a Sanitizer?

In order to be considered a sanitizer, a product must reduce bacteria on a surface by at least 99.9 percent, according to the EPA. A simple water and bleach solution can be a sanitizer or a disinfectant, depending on the concentration of bleach in the solution. Solutions with higher concentrations of bleach will be a disinfectant, while lower concentrations will be a sanitizer.


Cleaning is The First Step

While cleaning itself doesn’t kill all germs, this can be an important first step before disinfecting or sterilizing.

Cleaning physically removes dirt and some germs first, clearing the way for disinfectants to work more effectively. You can also conduct both processes at the same time.

Example: when you are mopping the floor with a disinfectant in the bucket.


Tips for Safely Disinfecting

You can disinfect items and common surfaces yourself at home or in your workplace.

  • Make sure your product is an actual disinfectant. The manufacturer will indicate such usage on their product labels.
  • Learn about what the product is designed to kill. Read your disinfectant’s label to find out what kinds of bacteria, fungi, and viruses the product can get rid of. This is especially important if you’re trying to fight coronaviruses like COVID-19.
  • Beware of “natural” products claiming to kill germs. While natural sprays and wipes may be useful for cleaning, they don’t have the germ-eliminating capabilities that chemical disinfectants do.
  • Don’t combine chemicals. This is especially true of hydrogen peroxide and bleach.
  • Wear gloves. Handling these products could cause irritation to the skin, and contact should be avoided.
  • Let the disinfectant stay on surfaces for the right amount of time. Follow the product’s instructions on the label regarding how long it should sit for. Do not wipe or wash the disinfectant away unless the instructions say so.
  • Use the disinfectant in a well-ventilated area. This is especially important to do if the product contains bleach.
  • Safely store your disinfectant products. Put lids and caps back on tightly and keep all products out of reach of children. Store disinfectants in a cool, dry place, such as a cabinet, and discard them if they’re expired.


How often do you need to do these?

Cleaning frequency will depend on how often you use a space and the external conditions. For example, it’s important to sanitize your office desk and dining table as often as possible.

If you are especially prone to allergies, or susceptible to illnesses and if there is a viral outbreak in your region, it is best to have your home sterilized by a professional. Follow it up with a daily routine of sanitization.

In deciding between disinfection vs sterilization vs sanitization, we recommend that you identify and record your objectives and help you choose the right disinfection method.


Protect yourself and others from COVID-19

Regular cleaning is an important way to keep you and your family healthy. But to effectively kill harmful microorganisms such as COVID-19, you’ll also need to disinfect common surfaces.
Washing your hands frequently, wearing face masks in public, and avoiding close contact with others outside of your household are all important methods of containing the spread of COVID-19.



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