Is Cleaning the Same as Disinfecting?

Is Cleaning the Same as Disinfecting?

We all know practicing good hygiene combined with maintaining a clean environment will reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) as well as other illnesses like colds and influenza (flu).  But did you know there is a difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting?

Cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are not the same.  Cleaning utilizes detergents to remove dirt and debris from a surface.  It does not kill germs but rather removes them, reducing their numbers and in turn reducing the risk of infection. Sanitizing also reduces the number of germs on a surface but the chemicals or processes used to sanitize kill bacteria, not viruses.  Disinfecting kills bacteria and viruses, it does not clean a dirty surface or remove germs but rather kills germs.  Both cleaning and disinfecting are important to reducing the spread of infection.

EPA Chart1

Action What does it do? Does EPA regulate the product?
Cleaning Cleaning removes dirt and organic matter from surfaces using soap or detergents. EPA regulates cleaning products only if they sanitize or disinfect. Learn more about EPA’s role.
Sanitizing Sanitizing kills bacteria on surfaces using chemicals. It is not intended to kill viruses. Yes, EPA registers products that sanitize.
Disinfecting Disinfecting kills viruses and bacteria on surfaces using chemicals. Yes, EPA registers products that disinfect. To find disinfectants for use against SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), see List N.
Using hand sanitizer Using hand sanitizer kills pathogens on the skin. No, hand sanitizers are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


While cleaning can be achieved with such products as soap and water or even vinegar, there is a misconception that disinfecting requires using products with toxic chemicals.  This may have been true years ago, but companies have brought safer and more environmentally sustainable disinfectants to the market, PURE® is an example.  There are thousands of registered disinfectant products for sale and there are several variations between them, not all disinfectants are created equal. Check the EPA registration on the product’s label and type that number into the EPA’s Database to find out if that product is EPA approved and find out which bacteria and viruses that product has been approved to work against.

If a product is labeled a cleaner, it has zero efficacy for disinfecting.  NEVER mix cleaners and disinfectants as there could be a chemical reaction causing toxic gas.  Combining a cleaner and disinfectant can also change the properties of the chemicals in both products, rendering them ineffective.  Selecting the appropriate cleaner and disinfectant should be based on the type of surface being cleaned, as well understanding the potential health hazards in using them i.e., is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) needed while using a product?  Following manufacturers’ instructions and product label directions for safe and effective use is critical.

Cleaning and disinfecting go hand in hand.  No one can say cleaning is “not my job” in today’s world.  Infection control strategies are everyone’s responsibility to live and work in a safe and functional world.




Protect Yourself From Viruses and Bacteria