Difference B/W Sanitizers, Cleaners, Disinfectants, & Sterilants

When your business seeks sanitizing services, disinfecting services, or commercial deep cleaning, it’s important to understand the differences between each service and what problems they’re designed to solve.

As a business owner, it’s important to understand what needs to clean, disinfected, sanitized, and sterilized. This is important not only for the upkeep of your facilities and assets but for you to better explain your needs to a commercial cleaning service. You may need to explain what can and cannot be done to your facilities and equipment, especially if you operate sensitive or costly machinery.

Commercial cleaning services use an array of different products with different properties. Factors such as the type of surface and how often it is used will help to determine what kind of cleaning and solution needs to take place. For example, when working with food it’s important to clean, disinfect and sanitize. If a surface is touched on a consistent basis, cleaning and disinfecting routinely is key. This includes counters, doorknobs, phones, handles, faucets, and especially bathrooms.

Before we explain the differences, it’s important to know that by law, a product cannot be labeled as a disinfectant or sanitizer without certification, and there are strict labeling rules to follow. In addition, safety precautions and use directions must be outlined on the label of each registered product.


What you do to sanitize will vary, depending on your needs. Sanitizing means that you are lowering the number of germs to a safe level. What is considered a safe level depends on public health standards or requirements at a workplace, school, etc. For example, there are sanitizing procedures for restaurants and other facilities that prepare food. You might be mopping a floor using a mop, a chemical, and water. You might use a dishwasher to sanitize the dishes. Or you could be using an antibacterial wipe on a tv remote.

Sanitizers are also regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This means they go through a rigorous testing phase to ensure the product meets certain criteria, including being tested against specific germs. It won’t get certified unless it passes. Most people don’t know that a chemical product can’t be labeled as a sanitizer unless it passes federal EPA certification. It’s also important to remember that sanitizers are only certified for bacteria.

sanitizing services

You’ll usually find sanitizers being used among foodservice providers. Any sanitizer with the label “food contact” sanitizer is safe for use to clean surfaces that encounter food. As with any chemical substance, the instructions must be followed and the surface completely dry before encountering food products. It’s important to understand that sanitizers only kill bacteria for a certain amount of time and must be reapplied after a certain length of time. When you sanitize, you are reducing the number of bacteria present by 99.9 percent, but sanitizing does not protect you from viruses or fungi.


While sanitizers reduce bacteria, cleaners are designed to remove soil, dirt, and other impurities from surfaces. There are several products on the market designated as cleaners. Cleaners do not kill germs; they just work to remove them. Cleaners are not regulated under the EPA, and they are not tested for effectiveness. Cleaners come in all types of strengths and the quality may vary. It’s important to use the right type of cleaner for the type of dirt or soil you are removing.

Low-risk surfaces, such as floors, windows, etc., where the likelihood of pathogen transfer from the surface is low, can be cleaned as opposed to sanitized. Cleaning alone will always contribute favorably to the health of indoor occupants because allergens and microorganisms are being removed from the surfaces of the indoor environment.

Cleaning may not necessarily kill the germs, but since you removed some of them, there are fewer germs that could spread the infection to you. Cleaning surfaces remain the foundation of any commercial deep cleaning service.


Disinfecting uses chemicals to kill germs on surfaces and objects. Some common disinfectants are bleach and alcohol solutions. Disinfecting does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs. To a certain extent, disinfectants are stronger than sanitizers because they work to kill a wider range of bacteria, mold and mildew, and stronger types of bacteria.

Disinfection is appropriate for frequently touched surfaces and surfaces likely to harbor pathogens. Since sanitizing does not make anti-viral claims, sanitizing offers any confidence of killing the flu or other viruses commonly found on surfaces. Sanitizing is meant to reduce, not kill, the occurrence and growth of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Disinfecting a surface will “kill” the microscopic organisms as claimed on the label of a particular product. Sanitizing is better than cleaning alone but the reduction of pathogen populations on environmental surfaces is exponentially better when you disinfect.

Disinfectants are also regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and must also pass rigorous testing. A product may be a disinfectant and a sanitizer, which will then be labeled as a disinfectant sanitizer.

Disinfection is mainly intended to decontaminate surfaces and air by using heavy metals, chlorines (halogens), bleach, alcohols, hydrogen peroxide, detergents, or through methods such as heating or pasteurization.


A sterilant is a disinfectant usually found in healthcare settings. It is used to decontaminate areas that have viable microorganisms and pathogens. Sterilants help control infectious organisms and must be handled very carefully due to their toxicity. Sterilants are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and have rigorous standards.

When considering a sterilant against a disinfectant, consider this: sterilants can be used to kill all microorganisms while disinfectants kill only certain microorganisms. While sterilants are used to eliminate danger, some can be very harmful to humans and corrosive if not used and stored properly.

Sterilization also destroys the spores of various organisms present on surfaces, in liquids, in medication, or in compounds such as biological culture media. Such “extreme” forms of decontamination are needed during critical times like surgery, or in environments like industrial, laboratory, or hospital. It is more practical to use disinfection in everyday life.

Sterilization can be done by three methods: physical, chemical, and physicochemical. The physical method includes steam, heat, radiation, and filtration. Chemical methods involve using liquid and gaseous chemicals. Physiochemical is a combination of physical and chemical methods. Sterilizing should be accomplished by qualified commercial cleaning services, as it typically involves complex machinery and products that need to be handled by professionals.


It’s not something that business owners spend too much time thinking about, but knowing the differences between cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing will help keep your employees and clients safer and more comfortable.

If you’re unsure what kind of commercial cleaning services you need, please contact us. We realize that each client needs specific, customized solutions and we can provide that between our janitorial services, sanitizing services, fogging services, and disinfecting services.