Sanitize vs. Disinfect: What's the Difference?

You shouldn't use sanitizers and disinfectants the same way—here's why.

The two major ways to protect yourself against germs—washing your hands regularly (or sanitizing them when you're not near soap and water) and cleaning commonly-touched surfaces—seem pretty straightforward. That is, until you're trying to decide which types of products to use.

While sanitizers and disinfectants are commonly referred to interchangeably, the two types of products are actually different and should be used in different situations. Here's what you need to know about sanitizers and disinfectants—including when, where, and how to use them.

sanitize-vs-disinfect
Alex Sandoval

What's the Difference Between Sanitizers and Disinfectants?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting all have different definitions:

  • Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and other impurities from surfaces but doesn't necessarily kill them.
  • Sanitizing lowers the number of germs on surfaces or objects—either by killing them or removing them—to a safe level, according to public health standards or requirements.
  • Disinfecting kills germs on surfaces or objects.

In short, it's helpful to think of the relationship between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting as a spectrum, with cleaning at one end and disinfecting at the other.

"Disinfecting kills the majority of viruses and bacteria," Diane Calello, MD, executive and medical director of New Jersey Poison Center and an associate professor of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told Health. "Sanitizing doesn't kill everything," Dr. Calello added.

The Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU) defines sanitizers as chemical products that can kill at least 99.9% of germs on hard surfaces (that percentage should go up to 99.99% of germs on surfaces used for food service). Disinfectants are stronger, killing 99.999% of germs on hard surfaces or objects.

The difference really boils down to the fact that sanitizing solutions aren't as strong as disinfecting solutions. But some products can be both sanitizers and disinfectants. Case in point, Dr. Calello said, is concentrated bleach: It can be a disinfectant, but if it's very diluted, it might be a sanitizer (meaning, again, that it kills less bacteria and viruses).

So, When Should You Sanitize and When Should You Disinfect?

There are certain procedures for cleaning groceries, surfaces in your home such as doorknobs, and your hands, and it's crucial to get them right. Let's start with groceries: You don't need to wipe them down with Clorox wipes (or any other disinfectants) or a sanitizer. All you have to do is clean them (using water, but no soap) when you bring them into your home, according to FoodSafety.gov.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you want to save disinfectants for bigger messes or highly-touched areas of your home, like doorknobs, toilet handles, and even sinks, especially when you or someone in the home is sick or at a higher risk of getting sick from a weakened immune system, according to the CDC.

Countertops, however, are where things get tricky—if you're using any surfaces for food preparation, it's best to sanitize those, so any chemical residue isn't as powerful and potentially harmful.

As for your own hands, it may be tempting to wipe them off with a disinfecting wipe once you use it on other surfaces, but you really shouldn't: That can be very dangerous for your skin, said Dr. Calello, who added that the poison center she works for has seen adverse effects of people using disinfectants on their own bodies.

"A gentleman who acquired very strong, industrial-use disinfectant wipes developed a blistering rash," Dr. Calello said. "People try to 'disinfect' their hands, [but] that should not be applied to skin."

Ultimately, you can go by this simple rule: "Wipe off surfaces, [but] wash your hands," said Donald Ford, MD, family medicine doctor at Cleveland Clinic. That's because "good" bacteria live on your skin, so when you apply something that kills basically all the bacteria on your hands, you're killing off some that are actually helpful and natural.

"There's a reason we don't apply something that kills every organism" on the skin, said Dr. Calello, (hence hand sanitizer, which should contain at least 60% alcohol, according to the CDC). However, it's important to remember that hand sanitizer is fine if you're out in public, but it's always better to wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds if able, the CDC states.

While COVID-19 has definitely triggered a huge uptick in people buying and using more sanitizing and disinfecting products, Dr. Calello said that it's not at all a bad thing: "I think it's good practice for everybody right now if you're looking to keep your home safe," Dr. Calellio said. Just remember to use them correctly and responsibly.

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