The Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing and Disinfecting

The Differences Between Cleaning, Sanitizing and Disinfecting

To a layperson the words ‘cleaning’, ‘sanitizing’ and ‘disinfecting’ may carry the same meaning. However, experts know that these terms each have very specific meanings and are critical to compliance to food safety standards in restaurants and other food service facilities. Knowing and understanding the difference between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting can help you effectively manage surfaces in food establishments.


The Food and Drug Administration Food Code requires that all food-contact surfaces must be cleaned prior to the sanitizing step. Cleaning a surface of significant food waste is necessary before effective sanitization or disinfection can occur. Food residue, such as spills or stains, will impact the effectiveness of antimicrobial products used in cleaning when left on a dirty surface. The food remains may interfere with the product’s antimicrobial chemistry. Alternatively, the product may form a protective barrier around the microorganisms rather than eliminating them.

Sanitizers and disinfectants are not a one-step product. A cleaning step is always required for the best results. Therefore, you should choose a cleaner that is effective for the food waste likely encountered in your establishment. Before sanitizing or disinfecting, agitate stubborn stains during the cleaning step using a brush, cloth, towel, or another appropriate tool to help lift trapped and stubborn organic material and food waste away from the surface.


The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a sanitizer as “a substance, or mixture of substances, that reduces the bacterial population in the inanimate environment by significant numbers.” Sanitizers are not intended to destroy all bacteria. Rather, they reduce bacteria to levels considered safe. According to the EPA, sanitizers are allowed to make antibacterial claims but not claims for other classes of organisms, such as viruses and fungi. Choose a sanitizer approved by the EPA for use on food-contact surfaces.

the differences between cleaning sanitizing and disinfecting man using purell spray
Sanitizing sprays can significantly reduce the number of bacteria on a surface

When used according to label instructions, food-contact approved products generally do not require a rinse step after application due to low safety risk if food were to encounter any residue left by the product after it dries. However, all sanitizing products need to stay wet on a surface for a specific length of time to reduce bacteria. Therefore, when using sanitizing products, it is vital to review their labels to ensure the appropriate time is allotted.


The EPA defines a disinfectant as “a substance, or mixture of substances, that destroys or irreversibly inactivates bacteria, fungi and viruses, but not necessarily bacterial spores, in the inanimate environment.” Disinfectants are stronger than sanitizers in that they are intended to have a higher level of antimicrobial efficacy and generally have a broader spectrum of activity. The majority of disinfectants available require a rinse step with drinking water when used on food-contact surfaces. This is because their formulations at disinfectant levels may leave potentially harmful residues.

Recently, innovative disinfectant chemistries that do not require a rinse step when used on food-contact surfaces have become available. These chemistries utilize active ingredients (such as ethanol) that do not have an upper threshold for safety tolerance. Check disinfectant labels to confirm whether a rinse step is required or if the product is deemed minimal risk on food-contact surfaces by the EPA.

To find the best combination of products, remember to:

1.     Read and understand what’s on the EPA-approved product label

Safety warnings, efficacy levels, and usage instructions will tell you if the product meets your needs.

2.     Look for products with broad-spectrum efficacy and fast kill times

Not all sanitizers are created equal, so make sure you’re maximizing your investment.

3.     Know where the products are being used

Now that you know the differences between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, make sure you are using the right product for the job.

4.     Firmly establish cleaning and sanitation practices

Even the most effective products can’t help if staff members aren’t properly trained on using the products.

GOJO helps people experience greater health and wellness by leveraging 75 years of experience to introduce improved ways to keep hands, and the surfaces they frequently touch, clean. The clearest example of this commitment is their PURELL® brand – a badge of hand and surface hygiene.

GOJO will be exhibiting in the Health & Hygiene Zone at Cruise Ship Hospitality Expo. Find out about what’s on at the next CSH here.

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