What is the difference between cleaning, sanitising and disinfecting surfaces?

3 April, 2023 by
What is the difference between cleaning, sanitising and disinfecting surfaces?
XO2® Pty Ltd, David Blamire

The global spread of infectious diseases has made cleaning, sanitising, and disinfecting standard requirements not only in healthcare facilities but also in workplaces, business establishments, schools and other places where many people come and go. 

Various cleaning products and methods have been developed to make it easier for business owners, facility managers, service providers and other users to achieve their goal of having a place that is free from germs and other causes of infectious diseases. 

So, what cleaning agents, sanitisers and disinfectants would be most suitable for your place? How do you know which needs to be done and how to do it correctly? 

This article aims to show the differences between cleaning, sanitising, and disinfecting. Knowing the differences would help in deciding which methods and products would be best for your place.

In a nutshell

Cleaning aims to physically remove dirt, spills, soils and some germs from surfaces. Sanitising aims to remove or reduce the harmful germs on surfaces to a safe level. Disinfecting aims to kill 100% of germs and other disease-causing microorganisms on a surface.

What is Cleaning? 

Cleaning is the process of physically removing visible contaminants such as soil, dirt, dust, spills, food particles other impurities and some germs on a surface. When we say germs we're including bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi and other microscopic living things that cause disease.

Cleaning also disturbs the environment and can help expose the remaining germs on the surface to the sanitiser or disinfectant to be applied later. That’s why, cleaning, is an important step before a surface is sanitised or disinfected especially in a deep cleaning process.

Cleaning methods 

The recommended cleaning method depends on the place or location of the surfaces and the area to be cleaned. For example, there will be differences in the cleaning procedure required in a healthcare facility and a gym. 

The cleaning process can be manual or mechanical. Here are some examples of manual cleaning: 

• Sweeping using a broom and a dustpan
• Dusting with cloth duster and feather duster 
• Cleaning surfaces with pre-moistened cleaning wipes
• Mopping floors (microfibre mops are best on even indoor floors)

Examples of mechanical cleaning include: 

• Vacuum cleaning
• Laundering clothing covers and curtains in a washing machine
• Cleaning floors with an automatic scrubbing machine
• Using a pressure cleaner / water blaster

Cleaning Frequency 

The method and frequency of cleaning depend on the area, traffic, equipment available, the surfaces to be cleaned and the dirt or impurities to be removed. You may refer to Safe Work Australia’s “Recommended cleaning by surface” information for the minimum cleaning frequencies for various situations. The document shows the recommended cleaning frequencies for low-risk to high-risk areas. 

A cleaning frequency table for each area will make it easier for all concerned to comply with the required cleaning frequency. 

Limitations of cleaning

Why is cleaning on its own not enough? Cleaning can remove some germs with visible dirt on a surface, but the process does not reduce their presence to what is considered a safe level. A possible exemption is when you thoroughly wash a surface with detergent and water which is not applicable to all surfaces. 

In a high risk setting or where an outbreak may have occurred, disinfection may be required and then followed by regular use of a probiotic cleaner to restore the beneficial bacteria for a healthy and balanced microbiome that keeps the nasties at bay.

Recommended safety precautions to take 

Check the safety data sheets of the cleaning chemicals you use. Follow any operating instructions for the equipment you use. Be aware of your facility's policies and procedures. Wear gloves and personal protection equipment when required. Take note and document the needed safety precautions to observe while cleaning. 

Also, refer to Safe Work Australia for its “Checklist of standard precautions for cleaning.”

This article is a great one to check out too... 21 Cleaning Chemical Handling Guidelines For Your Workplace

What is Sanitising? 

Sanitising is the removal and reduction of germs on surfaces or in fabrics to a level that is considered safe by public health regulators. Again, the safe level is specified by the public health regulators and depends also on the area to be sanitised. So, a hospital has a different sanitising requirement than a food processing area. 

Another requirement is that the surface should be cleaned first before sanitising. 

Always check the sanitiser’s label for the bacteria and other microorganisms the chemical is intended for. For example, a salmonella sanitiser may not be effective against E.Coli. 

Sanitising methods

Sanitising surfaces can be achieved with chemicals, heat, or steam. Sanitising chemicals are generally less harsh than disinfecting chemicals. In some cases, sanitisers may even be the same as a disinfectant however they have not undergone the necessary testing or approvals to be called a particular type of disinfectant. Some ways to sanitise include:

• Spraying the sanitiser on solid surfaces
• Wet mopping floors with a sanitiser
• Adding sanitiser to the dishwasher
• Activating a sanitising bomb like Fog It to create a fog that will sanitise even hard-to-reach surfaces in a closed room. 

Limitations of sanitising

Sanitising does not kill as many germs as disinfecting but by reducing their numbers, it lowers the risk of spreading infection.

What is Disinfecting? 

Disinfecting is the process of killing germs and other disease-causing microorganisms on surfaces and objects with chemical disinfectants designed to kill them on contact (dwell/contact time is required). We use the word 'germs' for simplicity but this includes bacteria, viruses, fungi and other living organisms that cause infection.

The targeted pathogens are stated on the disinfectant product’s label claims, so you can choose a product that would be effective against the bacteria or virus you are trying to kill.

Some of the chemicals used as disinfectants are alcohol, chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, quaternary ammonium compounds, phenolic compounds, and peracetic acid. Each of these ingredients has its own function. In some cases, they are combined to create a powerful disinfectant and sometimes they are used in tandem. By rotating disinfectants the likelihood of specific microorganisms building resistance may be reduced. This kind of procedure is generally only used in high-risk areas of healthcare establishments like operating theatres.

The goal of disinfecting is to kill or eliminate almost 100% of germs, not just to reduce their number on a surface. XO2's most popular disinfectants include Disso and Disso Wipes (both hospital grade, fragrance-free and TGA listed), 5 in 1 (commercial grade and a choice of fragrances) and Cleansan (food-area approved and fragrance-free).

Disinfecting methods

Following are some of the different ways disinfectants are applied on surfaces: 

• Spraying is a popular way to disinfect. 
• Mopping floors with disinfectant (we recommended disposable microfibre floor mop pads)
• Wiping surfaces with disinfectant wipes (there are even wall-mounted and freestanding wipe dispensers available).
• Application via foggers and electrostatic sprayers.
• Full-release disinfectant fogger aerosols like Fog It.  The fast and almost no-labour way to disinfect most surfaces in a room.

Keep in mind that germs and viruses are often airborne so they can even settle on untouched surfaces like ceilings and curtains.

Recommended disinfection practices 

• Make sure the surface has been cleaned before disinfecting. The disinfectant won’t be as effective at killing the germs if there is dirt preventing direct contact with the chemical. Not that some products are dual action in that they can clean and disinfect in one action. Disso is one of these.
• Observe the required dwell time. The dwell time is generally indicated on the product’s label. It is the minimum time that the disinfectant should remain on the surface to be effective. So, leave the surface untouched for at least the required dwell time. If the disinfectant is removed or diluted before the correct time, there’s a high probability that the disinfectant has not been fully effective.

Disinfection frequency 

How often should you disinfect your place? Disinfecting schedules may vary depending on various factors such as:

• Risk factors (pandemics, outbreaks, critical areas).
How many people usually visit your place? The traffic and number of people passing through a facility may determine the frequency of disinfection.
How the facility or area is used. For example, is the area a healthcare facility or a company office? The healthcare facility (especially in critical areas) will have a much higher disinfection frequency than a company office.
• Are there many frequently-touched surfaces in your place?

So, there is no standard disinfection frequency. Every facility is different. Some people think it's better to be safe than sorry and make the mistake of overusing disinfectants. Here's why that's not a good idea...

How do Disinfectants and Probiotic Cleaners work together?

Just like how doctors will often recommend probiotics after a course of antibiotics, we recommend using a probiotic cleaning product on a regular basis after an area has had a disinfectant treatment. High quality probiotic cleaners are brilliant at building the natural balance of a surface's microbiome. A healthy surface microbiome is important because it helps to create an environment where nasty and harmful bacteria and viruses cannot thrive and build resistance.

Disinfectants are important but keep in mind that they kill both good and bad bacteria. Probiotic cleaners replenish the good and beneficial microbes that help to stop the nasties from coming back and building resistance. Overuse of disinfectants may lead to antimicrobial resistance which means future disinfection treatments may reduce in effectiveness over time.

Using disinfectants all the time would be similar thinking to using antibiotics every day, even when you are well, kind of like a vitamin supplement. That's not a good idea because when you really need them, if you've overused disinfectants, they may not work effectively when you need them to most.

Basic Differences between Cleaning, Sanitising, and Disinfecting 

The basic difference between cleaning, sanitising and disinfecting is in the outcome after the implementation of each process. So, cleaning makes a surface free of visible dirt and other particles but does not eliminate all invisible germs. Cleaning does not make a surface free of disease-causing microorganisms. Then, sanitising reduces the number of germs while disinfecting eliminates almost all the germs on the surface where it’s applied. Disinfecting is the most effective at killing germs and helping to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. 

A similarity between sanitising and disinfecting is that they both need a clean surface to be fully effective in reducing and eliminating germs and other living harmful microorganisms. 

Before deciding whether to clean, sanitise or disinfect, it is important to identify your goals first. If you are not sure about your goal, you are in danger of making the wrong decision.

Standard Cleaning, Sanitising and Disinfecting Procedures

The effectiveness of cleaning, sanitising and disinfecting is highly dependent on proper implementation. It is important that all who are involved in the implementation of one or all of the three processes know the correct procedures for their area or situation.

Ensure that those responsible for maintaining a place where people feel safe from infectious diseases are guided by written or documented Standard Cleaning, Sanitizing and Disinfecting Procedures. 

The procedures should include a detailed outline of process steps from beginning to end to show how a process is executed. A good procedure and system have many benefits...

• A healthy and hygienic facility (including less absenteeism and outbreaks).
• Avoid repeated mistakes and continuing inefficiencies which can be costly to your business.
• Consistency of cleaning standards and outcomes.
• Simpler and more effective training (great for new employees). 


Proper cleaning, sanitising and disinfecting are all necessary for keeping environments safe and clean. In most cases, cleaning is sufficient, but in other cases, sanitising or disinfecting is needed. 

These four questions can help you decide whether to get a cleaning agent, a disinfectant or a sanitiser. 

• What are the risks?
• Will a particular product kill the target pathogen? 
• How fast will this product achieve the desired result?
• Is the product safe to use? 
• Is the product cost within budget? 
Is a probiotic cleaner a better option for regular cleaning?

Find the most suitable cleaning products, sanitisers and disinfectants for your needs by selecting from XO2's wide range of choices.

David Blamire, CEO at XO2

David is one of Australia's leading cleaning industry innovators. He's spent his entire working life solving cleaning challenges others thought were impossible. He's best known for his product creation and development skills along with a deep knowledge of business operations and all things ERP. In his spare time, David's a keen fisherman and adventurer. And he doesn't mind if you call him Davo.

Get in touch with David at www.xo2.com.au. He works from XO2's national headquarters and manufacturing centre in Queensland, Australia.

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