Sanitize vs Disinfect: What’s the Difference?

Fri 14 Jan, 2022


Germs are part and parcel of our daily lives and can be found everywhere. They are in our air, soil, water, and even on the skin of our bodies. Germs can also be found on the surfaces and objects we touch daily.

The main way of eliminating germs is cleaning through sanitization and disinfection.

Though often used interchangeably, there's a significant distinction between these two terms. Knowing these differences can help you purchase the correct cleaning products and use them effectively.


When to sanitize?

Sanitization is a vital decontamination or cleaning process for killing all microorganisms at a safe level. Sanitization can reduce 99.99% of bacteria on surfaces within 30 seconds to 5 minutes.

Fundamentally, it is advisable to sanitize surfaces that do not typically come into contact with highly dangerous bacteria. Or those that can be cleaned without the need for powerful chemicals.

For instance, cooking tools or children's toys, as you do not want such items coming into contact with powerful chemicals.

What is sanitize?

A sanitizer is a specialized chemical that reduces the number of surface microorganisms but doesn't entirely eliminate them.

Typically, sanitizers aren’t 100% effective against viruses and fungi. However, sanitizers must reduce the bacteria count by a minimum of 99.999% in food service situations.

Generally, standard sanitizers should kill 99.999% of infectious organisms present on surfaces within 30 seconds.


When to disinfect?

Unlike sanitization, disinfection isn’t a common part of most people’s daily cleaning routine.

Disinfection is a cleaning process that targets serious messes such as those involving bodily fluids, making it more conducive for medical settings.

As such, it is usually not recommended for daily household cleaning. This is because the overuse of disinfectants poses harmful health and environmental consequences.

However, it is suited for areas like toilets or sinks that typically have dangerous bacteria. In some instances, disinfection can also be carried out on high-contact areas like doorknobs and faucets.

What is a disinfectant?

A disinfectant is a specialized chemical that wholly and exhaustively destroys all microorganisms listed on its label.

The microorganisms it kills are typically disease-causing bacteria and pathogens. However, some may or may not be able to kill viruses and fungi.

Generally, standard disinfectants reduce the level of pathogenic bacteria by 99.999% in a time frame of fewer than 10 minutes.

How often should I disinfect vs sanitize?

Sanitization is suited to simple home cleaning procedures like cleaning groceries or surfaces like dinner tables and should be done daily.

Disinfection can be done on a weekly basis, on average. However, it is better to sanitize than disinfect surfaces used for food preparation like countertops. This is because disinfectants typically contain powerful chemical residue that is potentially harmful to humans.

Sanitize vs. Disinfect: Which is cleaner?

Sanitizing and disinfecting goes beyond simply removing dirt and impurities from surfaces to eliminate harmful bacteria.

Sanitization focuses on physically removing germs (lowering the number of germs to a safe level) while disinfecting thoroughly eliminates germs. As a result, sanitizing is a little gentler than disinfecting.

However, disinfection doesn’t completely result in clean surfaces but completely kills germs, lowering the risk of any infection.

For practical purposes, there is no evident difference between sanitizers and disinfectants as both chemicals kill pathogens.

So, the question is, how fast do they work?

For reasonable contamination levels, disinfectants take about 20 minutes to eliminate germs to undetectable levels. In contrast, sanitizers can work within less than 30 seconds.


Sanitize vs Disinfect vs Sterilize


Sterilization is essentially the process of completely destroying or eliminating all forms of microbial life. Sterilization typically occurs in healthcare facilities employing physical and chemical methods like steaming under pressure, dry heat, hydrogen peroxide, and liquid chemicals.


Sanitization aims to lower the number of germs on surfaces or objects. This is either by killing them or eliminating them to a safe level, according to public health requisites. Sanitizing is typically performed after cleaning.


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Why is proper cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting so important?

Sanitizing and disinfecting reduce the occurrence and growth of viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Generally, all surfaces that come into direct contact with food should be regularly cleaned and sanitized to avoid disease outbreaks and public health emergencies.

Can rubbing alcohol kill COVID-19?

The outbreak of COVID-19 has triggered a considerable uptick in the purchase of sanitizing and disinfection products.

Generally, alcohol-based disinfectants and sanitizers are arguably the most effective against COVID-19. For instance, most hand sanitizers contain 60% alcohol (ethyl alcohol or isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol.

However, rubbing alcohol alone targets bacterial spores and phenolic coagulate fluids containing protein which can sometimes protect organisms. So, it may not be fully effective against all viruses.

Furthermore, they are a fire hazard. So, it’s advisable to wash hands with soap and water, even after using sanitizer to kill COVID-19.

What is the best household disinfectant for surfaces during COVID-19?

Generally, regular household disinfection products can effectively eliminate COVID-19 from household surfaces. Particularly, surface virucidal disinfectants that contain 0.05% sodium hypochlorite (NaClO) and products based on ethanol (at least 70%) are recommended.


In summary, sanitizing solutions are not as strong as disinfecting solutions. For instance, disinfectants typically contain hydrogen peroxide, while sanitizers mainly constitute alcohol. However, some products can be both sanitizers and disinfectants.

Furthermore, sanitizers tend to work faster than disinfectants. Disinfectants typically take an average of 10 minutes to kill the germs. On the other hand, sanitizers can kill germs in less than 30 seconds.

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