Lockdown Cleaning - The Difference between Cleaning and Disinfecting

Cleaning jobs are not all the same. Some methods might seem multi purpose, but there are actually some major distinctions between cleaning, disinfecting and sanitising.

Cleaning refers to organising and wiping down surfaces, like counter tops, so that they appear neat and spotless. All-purpose cleaners are built to lift and remove visible smudges, spots, stains, and debris from surfaces.

Cleaning products can potentially remove germs from surfaces (along with dirt and other organic material) and wash them away, but the goal of cleaning is about the aesthetic and general appearance.

While general cleaning will help make your surfaces look nice and shiny, there are some places at home, like your kitchen counters, taps, and doorknobs, where you want to follow up your cleaning with a sanitiser or a disinfectant. Cleaning by itself doesn’t necessarily kill germs like bacteria, viruses, or fungi.

The difference between sanitising and disinfecting is minimal - they are both terms that mean the effective use against 99.9% of pathogens . Both sanitising and disinfecting aim to reduce the amount of contamination present on a surface by killing germs, but disinfecting—by definition—kills more germs than sanitising.

Product manufacturers use the word sanitising to refer to a solution or device that reduces the amount of germs on a surface by 99.9% or more—a level that’s considered safe by public health standards. They use the word disinfecting for chemical products that are designed to kill virtually everything on a surface.

Sanitising is necessary for surfaces that come in contact with food. Created to kill pathogens that reduce germs and fungi, sanitising sprays will make your surfaces safe to touch again.

Sanitising can also be done without chemicals, by an appliance like a dishwasher or laundry machine on the sanitise cycle, or a steam cleaner, which brings contaminated surfaces into contact with extreme heat to kill bacteria and other germs. Steam cleaning is especially useful for removing germs from porous surfaces like fabric, carpets and upholstery, which can’t be effectively disinfected with chemical products designated for hard surfaces. If the washer you’re using doesn’t have a sanitise cycle, a product like liquid laundry sanitiser can work alongside your normal detergent to help remove and kill germs from your clothing.

You should consider using a disinfectant to treat high-touch areas like doorknobs, light switches, and taps, especially when a member of the household has been sick. To be effective, disinfecting solutions need to remain in contact with the surface for a specified length of time. For instance, the virucidal cleaner we use after a suspected infection is left on a surface for at least 5 minutes before being rinsed off. Cleaning chemicals can damage some surfaces, so always do a test patch to make sure you’re not going to ruin your property.

Household bleach can be used as a sanitiser or a disinfectant depending on how much it’s diluted. Because concentrations of bleach can be inconsistent, and home dilution often inexact, if you need to be absolutely sure you’re disinfecting a surface, you’re better off following the instructions on a commercial disinfecting product.

You shouldn’t skip the step of cleaning before you disinfect. Dirt and organic material can make some disinfectants less effective, so cleaning is necessary before disinfecting in most cases. Using “all-in-one” antibacterial cleaners isn’t enough to disinfect unless you first remove visible dirt from the surface (basically, you’d have to clean everything twice). Remember, there is a difference between anti-bacterial and virucidal cleaners - we will come back to that in our next blog, with some lessons in why you should never mix your cleaning products.

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