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Homekeeping · Cleaning · This Is What You Need To Know About Cleaning Vs. Disinfecting
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This Is What You Need To Know About Cleaning Vs. Disinfecting

Not quite sure what to clean and what to disinfect? And what does it mean to "sanitize" something anyway? Get the answers you need right here!

Most of the time, the information I share here on my blog takes the form of practical tips or useful tutorials. But every once in a while, I feel compelled to dive deeper into certain topics, particularly when a better understanding of that topic can help us keep ourselves and our families safe!

For instance, I’ve written about the difference between hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol, as well as the difference between baking soda and baking powder. Today’s post is cut from a similar cloth, because today we’ll be exploring the difference between cleaning versus disinfecting.

Understanding the distinction is especially crucial given the current coronavirus pandemic, because keeping our homes clean will help us stay safe and healthy! This post should give you a much clearer understanding of the various methods of germ removal, and which one you ought to use when.

Related: 7 Surprising Things You Should Not Be Disinfecting

Cleaning Versus Disinfecting: What’s The Difference?

There are three main benchmarks you can shoot for when removing dirt and/or bacteria from a surface: cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. Each benchmark is slightly different, so it’s worth taking the time to understand what those differences are.

What Is Cleaning?

Cleaning is the process of removing visible dirt, debris, and dust from a surface, and may or may not include tidying up or organizing the space. Cleaning agents usually contain some sort of soap or detergent that lifts dirt from the surface so it can be removed manually.

While it isn’t the primary goal, cleaning can manually reduce the number of germs on a surface.

What Is Sanitizing?

The goal of sanitization is to eliminate pathogens, or microorganisms that can cause disease. Sanitizing a surface reduces some, but not all, of the total number of germs present.

Sanitizing is particularly important when it comes to food preparation in order to avoid making people sick. Restaurants typically sanitize their surfaces and tools with cleaning chemicals or with extreme heat (like the hot water from a steam cleaner or dishwasher).

What Is Disinfecting?

Unlike sanitizing, disinfecting isn’t just about eliminating pathogens—the goal is to kill all microorganisms that are present on a surface. Disinfecting is particularly important in places like hospitals, where the spread of infection can have deadly results.

Disinfection can be achieved with EPA-approved chemicals, including disinfecting wipes, bleach solutions, and alcohol solutions, or using UV-C light. This germicidal ultraviolet light breaks up the DNA of germs, rendering them incapable of reproducing or causing harm.

Should I Clean, Sanitize, Or Disinfect?

Now that we’re all on the same page as to what cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting mean, we can explore when it makes sense to use each method!

Clean Daily

Cleaning should be done most frequently, as often as every day, according to your needs and the amount of activity in your house. Basic housekeeping helps slow the growth of harmful pathogens and keeps your home more orderly and hygienic.

Cleaning should always come first, even if you ultimately want to sanitize or disinfect something. Sanitizers and disinfectants can’t do their jobs as effectively when they’re applied to dirty surfaces, so it’s important to wipe away grime before using those products.

Sanitize Frequently

Sanitizing certain surfaces helps keep your home healthy and hygienic. Use an all-purpose cleaner to sanitize the most frequently touched surfaces in your home daily, like your countertops, doorknobs, light switches, and common area furniture.

Other items around your house can be sanitized as needed. For instance, you should sanitize anything that has come into contact with bodily fluids ASAP. To sanitize clothing and linens, simply wash them in hot water.

Disinfect As Needed

Sanitizing surfaces can help keep you healthy, but if someone in your house is already sick or has a compromised immune system, you should be disinfecting instead. When using disinfecting wipes or sprays, it’s absolutely crucial to read and follow the directions on the label.

If you don’t use a disinfecting product according to its directions, you can’t be certain that you’re actually killing germs. And since we’re talking about people’s health here, that uncertainty could have seriously dire consequences!

Note: In response to the current coronavirus pandemic, the CDC currently recommends that we clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces around our homes daily. There is currently no cure or vaccine for COVID-19, so it’s important to follow recommendations like these to help reduce your risk of getting sick.

Important Tips For Cleaning & Disinfecting

  • Nearly all sanitizing and disinfecting products need to remain on a surface for 4-10 minutes to effectively kill germs and bacteria. That means you must apply a sufficient amount of the solution to keep the surface wet the entire time, and then allow it to air dry. (Afterwards, surfaces used for food preparation or eating should be rinsed with fresh water and dried with a clean towel.)
  • Never mix chemicals when cleaning or disinfecting. Some chemical reactions produce toxic gases that can result in lung damage or even death! Always ensure the area is well-ventilated when using any type of cleaning product.
  • Wear protective eyewear and gloves when using harsh chemicals. And always wash your hands with soap and warm water after cleaning, sanitizing, or disinfecting!

What’s your best tip for keeping your home (relatively) germ-free?


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    Hi, I’m Jillee!

    I believe we should all love the place we call home and the life we live there. Since 2011, I’ve been dedicated to making One Good Thing by Jillee a reliable and trustworthy resource for modern homemakers navigating the everyday challenges of running a household. Join me as I share homemaking and lifestyle solutions that make life easier so you can enjoy it more!

    Every day I share creative homemaking and lifestyle solutions that make your life easier and more enjoyable!

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