Cleaning Versus Disinfecting At Home: The Basics You Need To Know

cleaning versus disinfecting
cleaning versus disinfecting

Cleaning and Disinfecting are two different things. Both are important for keeping your home healthy, but they do different jobs.

But, what is the difference between cleaning versus disinfecting? There is a myriad of information out there today on what to do to protect yourself and your home from viruses.

Cleaning means getting rid of dirt, dust and other visible particles that can be removed with soap or detergent along with water. Disinfecting is to kill germs on non-porous surfaces using bleach or hydrogen peroxide solution (which will also disinfect but not clean).

Just how clean does your home need to be in order to stay safe? Having a good understanding on household products and the necessary tools needed to achieve a clean home can help reduce cost in only buying the necessary thing that will help you. Diving a little deeper, it might also be helpful to know what the levels of cleanliness are, and the difference between viruses and bacteria.

Cleaning, Disinfecting, Sanitizing, Sterilizing

You can clean without sanitizing, but you cannot sanitize without cleaning! What’s the difference?


The act of removing foreign materials and impurities that can range from large to microscopic in size such as most germs. The key word here is removing. Not all germs will be killed by general household products. Most people are cleaning their homes with a mix of soaps, baking sodas, vinegars and/or bleaches. Soap being the key ingredient here has the ability to lift most hydrophobic substances off of surfaces they stick to – allowing for water to rinse it away. While this is successful for most dirt and dust, it does not kill germs.


The act of removing and killing germs and other contaminants on surfaces that are deemed harmful based on public health standards. In short it is a decontamination process. Levels of sanitizing depends on the public setting and can be achieved through the use of heat (steam, hot water, hot air), chemicals, and radiation. It can be further be broken down in two ways: disinfection and sterilization.


This process of sanitizing kills most microorganisms, but not all. Spores and prions are still able to survive disinfection procedures! Certain cyanobacteria can survive in extreme conditions. For functional purposes however, the process of disinfection will make majority of things safe for human use. Also,  disinfection can be achieved through chemical or physical methods. Chemical disinfectants include alcohols, aldehydes, biguanides, halogens (iodine and chlorine), phenols, quaternary ammonium compounds (quats) and surfactants. Physical means of disinfection are heat treatment in an autoclave machine that uses pressurized steam.


Sterilization is the complete destruction of all organisms on surfaces (except prions, which require a prion specific decontamination process). This means that all forms of microbial life are gotten rid of. Sterilization is the standard of cleanliness on instruments/equipment utilized in health clinic, hospital, and certain factory settings. It is achieved by means of steam, dry heat and gas sterilization.

cleaning versus disinfecting
Source: CDC | For more information, visit CDC’s guidelines on what disinfection is

Bacteria, Cleaning And Your Home

Let’s understand something important: not all bacteria is bad! We as humans have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. They can help us thrive. However, as much as we rely on them, there is a fine line that delineates what they can do to us. Harmful bacteria often collect in high traffic areas in your home. Learning where these hot spots are can help to maintain cleanliness and protect you from contracting certain illnesses that an unclean home can harbor.

Common bacteria and pathogens you can find in your home can range from E-coli, Pseudomonas, fecal bacteria, and Staphylococcus to name a few.

How Harmful These Bacteria Are?

For the most part, these bacteria are harmless, and we can actually find them on or in our bodies. However, if you are severely immuno-compromised, you can risk getting seriously ill. This is where the concept of viral load comes in. Without getting too deep into the science, let’s just understand that depending on how many virus particles exist upon contact, and depending on the state of your immune system, you can contract an illness.

This is why it is so important to keep high traffic areas in your household clean. Foodborne diseases are one of the more obvious things we speak about in a home because we can visually see cross-contamination happening in real time! However, lots is happening in places you don’t see, so no, it’s not “out of sight, out of mind.”

For example, you don’t really see particles fly around when you flush the toilet, but you better believe bacteria is splashing everywhere when you flush! This is just one example. If you live with somebody who has severe allergies, or is virulent, the same thing is happening when they sneeze or cough. Just because you cannot see it, does not mean germs are not being spread around.

Here’s a list of items and places in your house that you can be more mindful of when cleaning:

  • Sponges
  • Dishrags/tablecloths
  • Cutting boards
  • Light switches
  • Countertops
  • Keyboards
  • Smartphones/tablets
  • Keys
  • Toothbrush holders
  • Toilet seat
  • Bathroom curtains
  • Door handles/knobs
  • Stove knobs
  • Towels
  • Bed sheets
  • Pillow Cases
  • Faucet handles

Cleaning Efficiently

Cleaning efficiently means paying more attention to the high traffic areas in your household. For example – the more you make a habit out of wiping your counter top after each use, the less work you will have to do when it comes time to doing a deeper clean for sanitizing purposes! You won’t need to scrub residual build up gunk off, because you have made a habit in cleaning on the go so you don’t even give gunk build up a chance! This might take a bit of practice to build into your routine, but the pay off is very rewarding.

And if you can’t follow this rule, at least be sure to clean the high traffic areas of your home more often than not.

So remember – it doesn’t hurt to wipe down surfaces or do a quick vacuum every day! This will go a long way in preventing illness and keeping up with cleaning efficiently so you don’t have to do a deep clean every time!