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Disinfection 101—Are You Covering the Basics?

Disinfection 101—Are You Covering the Basics?

Proper disinfection matches the correct protocol with the right disinfectant chemicals


The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for robust disinfection processes in facilities across all industries. Whether you’re new to disinfection or it is a familiar and necessary part of your cleaning routine, the pressure is on to make sure you are disinfecting both efficiently and effectively.

Cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, sterilizing, oh my!

It is not uncommon to see the word cleaning used in place of sanitizing or to hear disinfecting mistaken for sterilizing. While these terms are related, they shouldn’t be used interchangeably—they require different processes, tools, and chemicals to achieve different results. Understanding the basics of each will help you make the best decisions for your facility and achieve your health and safety goals.


Cleaning does not claim to remove or kill pathogens on a surface; instead, it revolves around aesthetics. This process removes soils such as dirt, dust, and blood off a surface, priming it for disinfection and restoring its appearance to how it looked when it was first bought or installed. 


At a minimum, sanitizing removes or kills 99.9% of select bacteria on a surface. Sanitizers do not kill viruses such as the coronavirus. Unlike disinfectants, however, some sanitizers can be used to remove germs on porous, soft surfaces including bedding, padding, carpet, and upholstery.


Disinfecting uses chemicals that have a minimum of a 6-log kill rate or that reduce pathogens by 99.9999%, further mitigating people’s exposure to harmful microorganisms, including spores and viruses like the coronavirus. Compared to cleaning and sanitizing, disinfection removes and kills more pathogens.


Sterilizing removes and eradicates 100% of microbes on a surface. The sterilization process is used on health care equipment that may enter the human body and on nonporous surfaces, such as operating room tables, that need to be completely free of pathogens.

With this clear understanding of the differences between cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing, let’s focus on disinfection.

Killing and removing pathogens

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approves a disinfectant through a series of tests and validation methods, which include assessing a disinfectant’s efficacy against a pathogen. Each cleaning chemical has a different dwell time, or contact time, referenced on its label. This is the amount of time the product needs to remain wet on a surface to completely disinfect it.

When working in a fast-paced setting such as a retail facility, for instance, cleaning staff may be tempted to complete tasks as quickly as possible. However, failing to abide by a disinfectant’s dwell time risks exposing guests and staff to potentially harmful pathogens that don’t get killed—and also opens up the facility to liability issues stemming from inadequate disinfection.

But killing a pathogen is only the first step. Once a pathogen dies, its body may be left behind, creating what is known as bio-load on the surface. As bio-load accumulates, it develops an environment for other bacteria and microbes to flourish in, making future disinfection more difficult. Physical or mechanical cleaning can help remove bio-load left on the surface.

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