Cleaning, Sanitizing, Disinfecting: What’s the Difference?

An essential part of running a successful business is maintaining a clean environment. Whether you stay on top of your cleaning by using a cleaning checklist or schedule, ensuring that your location is cleaned regularly can help keep your staff and customers healthy.

It’s important to understand the different depths of cleaning to decide what method and practices you should take in your location to slow the spread of diseases and viruses. We’ll be exploring the differences between cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing so that you can best incorporate them into your janitorial regimen.

*Click here to see the CDC's recommendations for preventing the spread of Coronavirus.

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What Is the Difference Between Cleaning and Sanitizing?

Cleaning Kitchen Sink

The main difference between cleaning and sanitizing is that cleaning is the act of clearing debris and deposits on a surface while sanitizing involves killing bacteria after the surface has already been cleared or wiped off.

When comparing cleaning vs sanitizing, you’ll want to make sure that cleaning happens first regardless of the surface, and that sanitizing follows depending on the area. Items that come into contact with foods and that are often touched should be sanitized, while locations like hallway floors and windows do not need to be regularly sanitized as they are considered low-risk surfaces.

What Is Cleaning?

To clean something means to remove all of the visible contaminations on the surface, including dirt, spills, food particles, dust, etc., by washing, brushing, or wiping the area. This process is surface level and does not eliminate germs but can help reduce their numbers. This is expected to be the first step in the cleansing process. Common cleaning products include:

  • Soaps
  • Detergents
  • Vacuums
  • Dusters
  • Degreasers
  • Glass Cleaners

What Is Sanitizing?

Sanitizing means reducing the number of microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, and fungi on a surface after it has been cleaned. The sanitizer used must reduce the number of bacteria to the level that is deemed safe by public health standards. To meet CDC requirements, sanitizing chemicals must kill 99.999% of the test bacteria in under 30 seconds.

Although sanitizing reduces the growth of harmful bacteria, it does not kill all of the viruses on a surface. Sanitizing is meant to be a preventative measure and is an extremely important practice in restaurants, schools, corporate offices, and hospitals. Every surface that comes into contact with food should be sanitized regularly, often several times a day.

Disinfect vs Sanitize

The difference between sanitizing and disinfecting is based on the number of bacteria each process eliminates. While sanitizing is meant to kill the majority of germs, it cannot make antiviral claims. Disinfecting is more potent than sanitizing and can kill nearly 100% of bacteria, viruses, and fungi while targeting specific disease-carrying microorganisms like the flu virus, norovirus, and coronavirus.

Because disinfecting is more intense than sanitizing, disinfectant will often be used in areas with a vulnerable population, such as healthcare facilities and daycare centers. Disinfectant foggers are often used to dispense disinfecting chemicals over large surface areas. Sanitizing would be enough for foodservice items such as tabletops and cutting boards, but a disinfectant would be needed for places like bathrooms and fitness centers.

What Is Disinfecting?

To disinfect means to kill specific viruses and pathogens on a surface using a disinfectant. These cleaning agents must kill 99.999% of infectious bacteria, viruses, and fungi within a 5-10 minute period. It is recommended to disinfect frequently touched surfaces. Bathrooms should always be disinfected due to the pathogens those surfaces can harbor that can lead to the spread of disease. Common disinfectants include:

Difference Between Sterilizing and Disinfecting

Although the terms are used interchangeably, there are differences between disinfecting and sterilizing. Disinfecting eliminates nearly 100% of viruses and bacteria on surfaces while sterilizing will kill all of the viruses, bacteria, fungi, and bacterial spores on an item.

While disinfecting is useful in most settings and on regularly touched surfaces, sterilizing is usually just reserved for instruments used in medical facilities and hospital settings.

What Is Sterilizing?

To sterilize an item means to completely eradicate microbes on its surface, including bacterial spores, bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Healthcare facilities are highly dependent on the sterilization of foods, medicines, and equipment to prevent infections in wounds and the spread of diseases from patient to patient. A few methods can be used to sterilize products:

  • Chemicals
  • Steam
  • Heat
  • Radiation

What Is the Proper Way to Sanitize a Table That Has Been Used for Preparing Food?

To properly clean and sanitize a food contact surface, what is the first step? Follow these steps to sanitize a table that has been used for preparing food:

Chef Cleaning in the Kitchen
  1. Clean the surface of any visible debris.
  2. Rinse the surface with soap and clean water. Do not use high-pressure washers that can end up spraying bacteria over a larger area.
  3. Sanitize the surface with food-safe sanitizer. Rinse the sanitizer if needed per the chemical’s directions.
  4. Allow the surface to air dry for a minimum of 30 seconds to a minute to allow the sanitizer to work. Use this time to implement a clean break if your location requires food prep to be documented in lots and time shifts.

Because of how easily bacteria can be transferred to food and cause illness, proper sanitizing practices are highly necessary for restaurant atmospheres. It’s important to use sanitizing methods in your restaurant kitchen to clean tabletops, cutting boards, and utensils to prevent cross-contamination that can cause food poisoning and allergic reactions.

What Should You Sanitize?

The general rule of sanitation is that if an item comes into contact with food, it should be sanitized. Here are common items that will need to be regularly sanitized in your kitchen:

  • Cutting Boards
  • Worktables
  • Pots and Pans
  • Serving Utensils
  • Countertops
  • Cooking Equipment

When to Sanitize

Your health inspector will be looking for proper cleaning and sanitizing practices in your restaurant. Follow the steps below to know when you should be sanitizing in your kitchen:

  • Whenever you’re done with a food prep task
  • Whenever you’re switching between food types and ingredients
  • If your task is interrupted, forcing you to walk away from the station
  • Every 4 hours

How to Disinfect

For frequently touched surfaces, follow these steps to disinfect them properly:

  1. Read the label of the disinfectant you plan on using to ensure that you understand the directions for that product.
  2. Clean the surface of any visible debris.
  3. Rinse the surface with soap and clean water. For doorknobs and handrails, use general-purpose cleansing wipes.
  4. Disinfect the surface with your disinfectant by following the directions on the product. Leave the disinfectant on the surface for 3-5 minutes or as long as the product calls for.
  5. Rinse the disinfectant off the surface if the product calls for it.

What Should You Disinfect?

Here are some items in your facility that should be regularly disinfected:

  • Light Switches
  • Door Handles
  • Elevator Buttons
  • Handrails
  • Bathroom Surfaces
  • Faucet Handles
  • Computer Keyboards and Mice
  • Phones

When to Disinfect

Disinfecting schedules may vary depending on your facility and the number of guests in your establishment. The following are some suggested moments when disinfecting should take place:

  • Once a day at minimum
  • At a higher frequency during cold and flu seasons
  • At a higher frequency during a virus outbreak
  • Whenever bodily fluids are on a surface

Do Disinfectant Wipes Kill Viruses?

Because disinfectant wipes have shorter dwell times than most disinfectant chemicals, there is concern that they do not have enough time to kill the viruses on a surface. The key to successfully disinfecting a surface is to read the details on the cleaning wipes you choose to use. To confidently target viruses like the norovirus, influenza, rhinovirus, and coronavirus, the CDC advises using disinfectant wipes that contain at least 60% alcohol.

Prevent Disease

Female Physician sanitizing hands

While cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are essential parts of the restaurant food safety guidelines for preventing diseases, there are additional practices that you and your employees can take to maintain a clean and healthy work environment.

Here are some disease prevention methods you can implement in your business:

  • Clean visibly soiled surfaces immediately
  • Use hands-free dispensers, water faucets, and trash receptacles
  • Use gloves when cleaning soiled surfaces or during food prep (Do not touch other surfaces during the task)
  • Dispose of cleaning wipes and paper towels used to clean surfaces immediately after completing the task
  • Use clean mop water when switching between rooms or when water is visibly dirty
  • Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water after using the restroom, between switching tasks, after sneezing, or touching soiled tissues
  • Keep staff members home when they are sick
  • Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose
  • Cover the mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing, then immediately dispose of the tissue

CDC Recommendations For Coronavirus

When protecting your business from COVID-19 these are some of the recommendations from the CDC.

  • Clean frequently touched surfaces multiple times a day with sanitizers or disinfectants.
  • Ensure that you and employees wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
  • If soap is not readily available, use sanitizer that contains 60% alcohol or more and rub your hands together until they feel dry.
  • Do not touch your eyes, mouth, or nose with unwashed hands.
  • Enforce social distancing when possible if COVID-19 is spreading in your community. This may mean closing non-essential businesses or transforming your location to offer pick-up/drive-thru services only. Reduce your staff to essential personnel only.
  • Stay home or keep employees home for 2 weeks if they are exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

When comparing the different cleansing practices, the number of bacteria will decrease as you progress from cleaning to disinfecting, to finally being fully eradicated with sterilizing. The only way to ensure that your cleaning program is successful is to provide your staff members with the proper training and guidelines. You may choose to hire a cleaning service for your restaurant to make your business a healthy place for your customers and employees.

Posted in: Cleaning Tips | By Janine Jones
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