From the Experts

Cleaning, Sanitation, and Disinfection: Not Quite the Same, Knowing the Difference

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that is spread from person to person through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes.  Though less likely, there is a possibility of contracting COVID-19 from touching an infected surface and subsequently touching one’s nose or mouth (Parker-Pope, 2020). Research has demonstrated that frequently touched hard-surfaces can play a role in the transmission of COVID-19 (Watson, 2020).  Therefore, cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting, which all reduce the risk of viral transmission, are vital in mitigating COVID-19 spread.  This much is evident by the shelves that still remain empty of most cleaning products in our grocery stores. But what good is it to have these products at your disposal without knowing their protocols of use? It is important to be able to distinguish between these tasks to perform them properly and optimize health and safety. 


99.999% Effective?

Sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs. Sanitizing is only the reduction of germs, mostly bacteria, from surfaces. While studies support that sanitizers with a 60-95% alcohol concentration are effective at killing most microbes, they are not recommended for use on heavy soiled surfaces (“Community, Schools, Workplaces, & Events”, 2020). Sanitizing does not remove all germs or dirt from hands and surfaces. 



Cleaning refers to the removal of dirt, germs, and impurities through the use of a detergent or soap and water. This method is considered the best practice to cleanse dirty hands and surfaces. Though soap and water does not kill germs, it lowers the amount of germs present and decreases the risk of spreading infection (“Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) – Symptoms”, 2020).



Disinfection refers to the killing or “inactivation” of germs on a surface. This process typically involves the use of chemical agents that have bactericidal, fungicidal, and virucidal properties (“Chemical Disinfectants | Disinfection & Sterilization Guidelines | Guidelines Library | Infection Control | CDC”, 2020).

The CDC recommends the following chemical disinfectants for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19:

Alcohol: Alcohol weakens proteins that make up surface-level microorganisms, destroying their structural integrity and neutralizing them. This type of disinfectant is not to be confused with some grain alcohols in beverages, including ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol). Alcohol-based solutions for disinfection should be at a minimum of 70% concentration to verifiably eliminate SARS-CoV-2 from surfaces. 

Chlorine and chlorine compounds: Chlorine compounds inactivate harmful microorganisms. Most commonly found in bleach, these compounds are generally available as 5.25-6.15% solutions of sodium hypochlorite (“Coronavirus Disease 2019 – Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations”, 2020). When using bleach, take the proper precautions and read the specific dilution instructions on the product label.  Temperate water should be used for dilute bleach solutions.  Handle these solutions with gloves in a well-ventilated area. Never use bleach on food products, apply to skin, ingest bleach, or mix bleach with other chemicals (Ghapure, Hunter, Schnall, et al., 2020).

Hydrogen Peroxide: This disinfectant is most commonly used as an over-the-counter antiseptic. Hydrogen peroxide produces “free radical” compounds that interfere with crucial cellular components, neutralizing microorganisms. A 7% hydrogen peroxide solution is completely virucidal after 5 minutes of activity. 

The CDC recommends the cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection for the prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings (“Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) – Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations”, 2020). When in doubt, you can always refer to the EPA’s “List N” tool, which lists every product confirmed to meet criteria for use on surfaces against COVID-19. Remember to take the appropriate safety measures when using these products to prevent injury to yourself and others.


Chemical Disinfectants | Disinfection & Sterilization Guidelines | Guidelines Library | Infection Control | CDC. (2020).

Communities, Schools, Workplaces, & Events. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020).

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) – Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020).

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) – Symptoms. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020).

Gharpure R, Hunter CM, Schnall AH, et al. Knowledge and Practices Regarding Safe Household Cleaning and Disinfection for COVID-19 Prevention — United States, May 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:705–709. DOI: icon. 

Parker-Pope, T. (2020). What’s the Risk of Catching Coronavirus From a Surface?.

Watson, S. (2020). Coronavirus on Surfaces: What’s the Real Risk?. WebMD.

%d bloggers like this: