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Cleaning, disinfecting, sanitizing: what's the difference?

Clean, disinfect, sanitize: three words that we hear a lot lately. Although some of us might think that they all mean, more or less, the same, in reality they are three completely different things.

Undeniably, germs are part of our daily life and we encounter thousands of them every day. While some are harmless, others can cause health issues and infections. So, in certain cases, understanding the difference between cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing can help us protect ourselves. So what's the difference?

Cleaning aims at physically removing dust or dirt from surfaces but it doesn't automatically mean complete germ removal. According to the official guidelines 'cleaning is the activity aimed at eliminating all traces of dirt and at making a surface or an object visually clean through chemical reaction or mechanical action within a determined time frame'. Therefore, cleaning is the process of eliminating dirt, dust or other similar unwanted substances that are visible to the human eye.
difference between cleaning, disinfecting, sanitizing - equipment
Disinfection refers to the process of removing a number of germs, pathogens or other types of microorganisms. Officially, 'disinfection is the operation of eliminating pathogens present on surfaces, with the exception of bacterial spores, through physical or chemical methods' . This might involve various techniques such as heating or cooling and the use of chemical agents among others. In other words, while cleaning eliminates mainly what is visible to the eye, disinfection can eliminate substances and microorganisms that are not visible.

Sanitizing , on the other hand, aims at preventing the spread of viruses and therefore at significantly reducing the number of pathogens to a hygienically safe level. According to the official guidelines, 'sanitizing includes a set of activities or processes aimed at making surfaces hygienically suitable and controlling the risk of infection by minimizing the microbial load'. 

Generally speaking, cleaning is a simpler task that all of us can perform at home since cleaning agents and equipment are easy to understand and handle. However, disinfecting and, above all, sanitizing can be highly demanding tasks that require a strong know-how, professionalism and a lot of experience.