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.


It might seem impossible to keep your home clean and tidy. But, staying clean is essential for your health.  Imagine that you live in a filthy space. What do you do? What tools do you use for cleaning your living spaces?  How do you choose when it comes to disinfection vs sterilization vs sanitization?

Two types of decontamination are sterilizing and disinfecting. This is a process that makes it safe to touch. It is important to kill as many germs as possible, in order to minimize the chance of getting infected. Cleaning is not the same as decontamination. While cleaning can remove dirt and dust, decontamination is the neutralization or removal of dangerous substances, radioactivity, or germs from an area, object, or person.

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

These terms can be confusing. There are many differences that you need to know before choosing the best decontamination method for 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.



According to the CDC, disinfecting can remove nearly 100% of harmful pathogenic microorganisms from surfaces and objects. While it doesn’t clean dirty surfaces, disinfecting does kill germs and lowers the chance of infection.  One example of disinfecting in your home is in the toilets, swimming pool, sinks, and diaper changing areas.

Depending on which disinfectant was used, it may be necessary to leave the product on surfaces for 20 minutes or 12 hours.


What Is Considered a Disinfectant?

EPA standards require that a disinfectant kills 99.999% of germs. This is in contrast to 99.9% for sanitizers. Although this may seem like a small difference, it can make all the difference in reducing the spread and severity 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.

Children’s toys or cooking tools would be best for sanitization.


What Is Considered a Sanitizer?

According to the EPA, a product must kill at least 99.9% of bacteria to qualify as a sanitizer. A simple solution of water and bleach can either be used as a disinfectant or sanitizer, depending on how concentrated the bleach is. A solution containing higher levels of bleach will act as a disinfectant. Solutions containing lower levels will work as 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, germs, and other contaminants first. This allows disinfectants to be more effective. Both can be done simultaneously.

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 that your product is an actual disinfectant. Manufacturers will clearly indicate this on product labels.
  • Find out what the disinfectant is capable of killing. Check the label of your disinfectant to see what bacteria, viruses, and fungi it can kill. This is particularly important if you are trying to combat coronaviruses such as COVID-19.
    Avoid using “natural” products that claim to kill germs.
  • Do not combine chemicals. This applies especially to hydrogen peroxide, bleach, and other chemical compounds.
    Use gloves. Contact with these products can cause skin irritation.
  • Allow the disinfectant to remain on the surface for the appropriate amount of time. Refer to the label for the time the disinfectant should remain on surfaces. If the instructions do not say otherwise, you must wipe the disinfectant off.
  • Disinfect the area with the disinfectant. If the product contains bleach, this is particularly important.
  • Keep disinfectant products safe. Make sure to seal all caps and lids tightly. Keep children away from the products. If they are expired, store disinfectants in a dry, cool place such as a cabinet.


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 prone to allergies, or susceptible to various types of flu, and if there is a viral outbreak in your region, it is a best practice for you to hire a professional to properly sterilize your home. You should continue this process with daily sanitization.

When deciding between sterilization and disinfection, it is important to identify your goals and then record them. This will help you select the best disinfection method.


Protect yourself and others from COVID-19

Regular cleaning is an important way to keep you and your family healthy. To effectively eliminate harmful microorganisms like COVID-19, it is important to disinfect all surfaces. To stop the spread of COVID-19, you can wash your hands often, wear face masks when out in public, and avoid contact with other people.



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The information contained in this article is for general information purposes only. The Company does not guarantee the accuracy, relevance timeliness or completeness of any information, and the Company assumes no responsibility for errors or omission in the content of this article. 


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