What’s the Difference Of Sanitize and Disinfect?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the two main ways to protect yourself – washing your hands regularly (or disinfecting them when you’re not near soap and water) and cleaning frequently touched surfaces – seemed self-explanatory. That is, until you’re trying to decide which type of product to use.

While sanitizers and germicides are often used interchangeably, the two products are actually different and should be used in different situations. Here’s what you need to know about disinfectants and sanitizers – including when, where, and how to use them.

What’s the difference between a cleaner and a disinfectant?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing all have different definitions.

Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and other contaminants from surfaces but doesn’t necessarily kill them.
Disinfection reduces the number of germs on a surface or object to a safe level – either by killing germs or removing them – according to public health standards or requirements.
Disinfection can kill germs on surfaces or objects.
In short, it’s helpful to think of the relationship between cleaning, disinfection and sterilization as a spectrum, with cleaning at one end and sterilization at the other.” Disinfection kills most viruses and bacteria,” Dr. Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Center and an associate professor of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told Health.” Disinfection doesn’t kill everything.”

If you want to get real technical, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a disinfectant as a chemical product that kills at least 99.9 percent of bacteria on hard surfaces (that percentage should be as high as 99.99 percent of bacteria used on food service surfaces). Disinfectants are again stronger, killing 99.999% of germs on hard, non-porous surfaces or objects.

The difference between the two actually boils down to the fact that disinfectant is not as strong a killer as sanitizer. But some products can be both a disinfectant and a germicide.Dr. Calello says the case in point is concentrated bleach. It can be a disinfectant, but if it’s very diluted, it can be a sanitizer (again, meaning it kills fewer bacteria and viruses).

So, when should you sanitize and when should you?
There are procedures for cleaning groceries, surfaces in your home (like doorknobs), and your hands, and it’s vital to do it correctly. Let’s start with the groceries first. You don’t need to wipe them down with Clorox wipes (or other disinfectant) or disinfectant. All you have to do is clean them (with water, but not soap) when you bring them into your home.

On the other hand, you want to save the disinfectant for bigger messes or highly-touched areas of your home, such as door handles, toilet handles, and even the sink. Countertops, however, are the trickiest areas – if you use any surfaces to prepare food, it’s best to sanitize those surfaces so that any chemical residue isn’t as powerful or potentially harmful.

As for your own hands, it may be tempting to wipe it off with sanitizing wipes once you’ve used it on other surfaces, but you really shouldn’t. It’s very dangerous for your skin, says Dr. Calero, adding that the poison center where she works has seen the adverse effects of people using disinfectants on their own bodies.” One gentleman who got very strong disinfectant wipes for industrial use developed a blistering rash,” she said.” People are trying to ‘disinfect’ their hands, [but] this should not be applied to the skin.”

Ultimately, you can go by this simple rule: “Wipe the surface, [but] wash your hands,” agrees Donald Ford, M.D., a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic. That’s because “good” bacteria live on your skin, so when you apply something that basically kills all the bacteria on your hands, you’re killing something that’s actually useful and natural.” There’s a reason we don’t apply something to our skin that kills every organism”, says Dr. Calero, (hence hand sanitizer, which should contain 60% alcohol). However, it’s important to remember that if you’re in a public place, hand sanitizer is fine, but if you have a choice, it’s best to wash your hands with soap and water (for at least 20 seconds!) .

While COVID-19 has certainly triggered a huge uptick in people buying and using more disinfection and sterilization products, Dr. Calello says it’s not a bad thing at all: “I think it’s a good practice for everyone right now if you want to keep your home safe.” She says. Just remember to use them correctly and responsibly.