know the difference between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting

Know the Difference between Cleaning, Sanitizing & Disinfecting

Healthcare facilities must comply with high standards of environmental cleanliness for the wellbeing of patients and practitioners. Without the proper level of cleaning, pathogens will collect on surfaces and in the air and could potentially cause illness or infection in patients and staff – undercutting delivery of service and increasing liability for hospitals, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and outpatient, surgical and urgent care centers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers guidelines for disinfection and sanitization in healthcare facilities, which cover the best cleaning procedures to use in a range of environments and circumstances. Your healthcare cleaning provider may claim that they “sanitize” and “disinfect,” but do you really know the difference between these techniques?

According to the CDC’s guidelines, “sterilization of all patient-care items is not necessary,” so it’s crucial that you know the level of cleaning that each tool, surface or device in your facility requires to fully mitigate your risk. Learn the basic principles behind cleaning, sanitization and disinfection from the experts at ServiceMaster Clean® so you can be sure your cleaning protocols are up to snuff. Protect your patients and your practice’s reputation by ensuring you meet the CDC’s recommended standards.


Definition: the removal of visible soil, debris, microorganisms and organic substances from surfaces; will not eliminate germs but reduces their numbers by removing some contaminated matter.

Cleaning is just the first step in a complete decontamination process, but it’s a step you can’t skip. Even if you intend to sanitize or disinfect the area, cleaning away visible soil, dust or debris beforehand makes it easier and more effective to remove microscopic germs with more intensive methods later.

Cleaning in a healthcare facility is typically done using clean water in combination with a commercial detergent. Medical instruments, devices and equipment can be cleaned via manual (friction and fluidics) or mechanical processes. Whether further action is necessary will depend on the particular surface or piece of equipment.

Items with a low risk for transferring pathogens like floors and windows may only need surface cleaning. Even so, these surfaces can be cross-contaminated and harbor increased risk for disease transfer in medical facilities if cleaning supplies are improperly used, decontaminated or stored.


Definition: the reduction of bacteria to safe levels (set by public health standards) to decrease the risk of infection; may not kill all viruses.

A step beyond cleaning, sanitization kills a greater amount of bacteria and is required for any surface that comes into contact with food. The CDC explains that “a sanitizer is a chemical that kills 99.999% of the specific test bacteria in 30 seconds under the conditions of the test.” Therefore, while sanitizers can kill the majority of certain kinds of bacteria, sanitization products and techniques alone cannot eliminate all viruses.

The surfaces in your facility that are most at risk for contamination – such as those in your operating rooms – will require additional decontamination to effectively control your liability.


Definition: the elimination of pathogens and disease-causing microorganisms, except bacterial spores. 

Disinfection is a stronger decontamination method for healthcare facilities than sanitization or cleaning alone because of its ability to destroy pathogens. Professional janitorial providers typically disinfect surfaces using a liquid chemical agent or wet pasteurization process.

There are several grades of chemical disinfectants. Choose one that meets your facility’s environmental needs:

  • Low-level disinfectant: Kills almost all vegetative bacteria and some viruses and fungi, but not bacterial spores.
  • High- level disinfectant: Eliminates all microorganisms except for small numbers of bacterial spores; capable of killing bacterial spores when used in adequate concentration under suitable conditions.
  • Hospital-grade disinfectant: Approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use in hospitals and other medical facilities – including clinics and dentist offices – to destroy many known infections and disease-causing bacteria. There are roughly 1,200 registered hospital-grade disinfectants.

The experienced professionals at ServiceMaster Clean have the training, techniques and advanced tools and equipment to customize our cleaning protocols for a range of medical offices and healthcare facilities based on your unique needs. Our janitorial services for healthcare facilities are trusted throughout the industry because of our commitment to evidence-based cleaning best practices.

Learn how our patient-centered approach to cleaning can help keep your healthcare facility clean, sanitized, disinfected and – ultimately – safe.