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

Gloved hands spraying and wiping down counter for cleaning and sanitizing.

Recently, while being either a paid editor or a casual reader, I’ve bumped into more than one source where authors have used the terms cleaning and sanitizing incorrectly. (You know I’m practically a fanatic about learning and using terms correctly!)

Here are differences between cleaning, sanitizing, decontaminating, and disinfecting.

What, exactly, do these words mean?

I checked several sources, all of which were less than clear! If I had to pick one that was the most authoritative, it would be one from the CDC. But most of what I’ll explain here comes from what I’ve learned in the clinical area.   

Cleaning

Cleaning means that an object has been washed with soap and water. All visible organic or inorganic material has been removed by cleaning. Dr. Ruth Lawrence once told me that if the item is clean enough to eat out of, then it’s clean. 

Decontaminating

Decontaminating is the act of neutralizing or removing a substance that contaminates an object.

Such a substance is not necessarily a microorganism, nor is it necessarily harmful to health. (Although often, it is.)

For example, one might decontaminate an object that has been contaminated with a radioactive substance. A crime investigator might reject an object as evidence because it has been touched by one of the investigation team, and hence it is contaminated. 

Decontaminating may or may not involve removal of infectious organisms. 

Sanitizing

Sanitizing means that bacteria is removed from an object’s surface, usually through wiping or laundering.

EPA-approved sanitizers remove only bacteria; they do not claim any effectiveness against viruses. Examples of sanitizers include Lysol™ All-Purpose Cleaner and Formula 409™ All-Purpose Cleaner.

Sanitizing means that only bacteria is removed, and other life forms are not.

Disinfecting

Disinfecting destroys or inactivates bacteria or viruses, and is usually associated with microorganisms that are on hard, nonporous surfaces.  

For as long as I can remember, a 10% bleach solution is considered to effectively destroy or inactivate bacteria or viruses. In addition to bleach, examples of common household disinfectants include alcohol and formaldehyde.

I’ve often seen CaviCide™ used to clean breast pumps in hospitals. CaviCide is a disinfectant, which means it’s effective against bacteria or viruses on most hard or non-porous surfaces. It will effectively disinfect non-critical and semi-critical instruments, hence, it is often used for breast pumps.

Keep in mind, though, that this is simply a popular brand. There are others that accomplish the same thing.

After disinfecting, some forms of microbial life could remain.

Sterilizing

Sterilizing means a process that destroys or eliminates all forms of microbial life, including bacterial spores.

In the hospital, sterilization is usually accomplished by pressured steam in an autoclave. Items such as surgical instruments are usually sterilized in a special department of the hospital.

However, I have personally sterilized instruments used for labor/delivery in an autoclave run at 250° or 270° F degrees for a specified period of time.

Sterilizing is kind of a big deal because it is the highest form of eliminating pathogens.

No form of life remains after sterilization.

As you can see, cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing aren’t the same thing. If you wipe down your countertops, clean your breast pump, or engage in any other cleaning activity, you need to be aware of the differences.

If you’re worried about protecting yourself from communicable diseases, you need to know which products will help you in your efforts to do so.

Knowing the differences between cleaning and sanitizing, will you be changing up your routine or recommendations about keeping pumps clean? Share your tips in the comments below!

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