Sanitize Vs. Disinfect: What's the Difference?

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Alexander Raths/Shutterstock

And is vinegar a disinfectant?

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With the holidays and “indoor” season starting, now’s a good time to talk about cleaning. What the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting? How much do we really need to disinfect and how? Is vinegar a disinfectant? Here are some facts to dispel the confusion—plus helpful tips on cleaning.

Sanitizing Versus Disinfecting

Did you know? There are actually different levels of cleaning defined by the CDC. It’s all about the level of germs and microbial organisms left behind.

  • Cleaning: Simple refers to removing visible debris, dirt, and dust, not to kill harmful bacteria. 

  • Sanitizing: Reducing, not killing, the number and growth of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. We should regularly sanitize food preparation areas, doorknobs, light switches, computer services, mobile phones, faucets, sand stair rails. It’s also a good idea to sanitize linens; pillow cases, sheets, towels, washcloths, and clothing can harbor and spread bacteria. Use the highest temperature setting. For delicates that require lower heat, use liquid bleach or laundry sanitizers labeled to kill at least 99 percent of bacteria.

  • Disinfecting: Killing 100% of viruses and germs and microscopic organisms. Stopping the spread of infectious microbes. We don’t always need a disinfectant. Overusing disinfectant products can create resistant microbes. However, we DO need a disinfectant when there is someone ill in the house or someone has a compromised immune system.

When to Disinfect

Do you really need to disinfect all of your counters and tabletops, bedside tables, appliances, door handles, and faucets? 

Maybe not, as long as nobody in the household is sick or feeling sick.

  • The risk of COVID from surfaces is very low. Further, coronaviruses are some of the easiest types of viruses to kill. According to the EPA, disinfectants easily break a protective coating around the coronavirus so that it can’t spread to another cell.
  • The flu virus can live on surfaces and can potentially infect a person for up to 48 hours after being deposited on a surface. Fortunately, the flu virus is also fragile and easily killed.

Bottom-line: These viruses are not hardy and are easily destroyed by good disinfecting products. There’s no need to go crazy wiping down areas that aren’t high-touch hotspots;  overdoing it increases irritation to your eyes, nose, and throat and cause other serious side effects..

Do note: All cleaners must remain on a surface for 4 to 10 minutes to effectively kill germs and bacteria. A quick wipe using one of those all-purpose surface wipe products is NOT enough.

How to Disinfect

  1. Soap and water
  2. Bleach [Wear gloves! Use 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) of bleach in 1 gallon of water or 4 teaspoons of bleach in 1 quart of water.]
  3. Isopropyl alcohol (Don’t dilute.)
  4. Hydrogen peroxide (Don’t dilute.)

Of course, if you don’t use the products correctly, you defeat the entire purpose. Consult this detailed information site developed by Consumer Reports. It tells you when and how to disinfect, which products to use, and, importantly, which products won’t work. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all disinfection products.

Important! Don’t mix common household disinfectants. The following combinations may create toxic vapors that can damage organs, and cause nerve damage, breathing difficulties and/or throat burns.

  • Bleach and vinegar
  • Windex and vinegar
  • Bleach and ammonia
  • Bleach and rubbing alcohol
  • Hydrogen peroxide and vinegar, bleach, or ammonia
  • Bleach and toilet bowl cleaner

Check labels on all cleaning products to avoid accidental mixing. Some products may contain more than one ingredient. 

Best practice: When disinfecting, even though you may prefer different products for difference cleaning jobs, never mix them. Stick with a single product for each cleaning job.

See more about approved Disinfectants for Use Against Novel Coronavirus

Does Vinegar Disinfect? 

No. Here are a few products that some folks think help but in reality do very little:

  1. White distilled vinegar. We all know that vinegar has many wonderful household uses, but it’s not a disinfectant that kills viruses.
  2. Vodka
  3. Homemade hand sanitizers

Hand-washing Is Still the Best Defense

One more reminder:  Hand-washing is still your best defense against viruses, including COVID-19. It may not sound fancy, but it works when done right. See how to properly wash your hands.

If your hands start to feel dried out, be sure to moisturize! You don’t want cracked skin that exposes your body to germs. See our tips on relief for dry hands and skin

Keep up your hand-washing practice, stay home, keep talking the positive self-talk, and comfort your loved ones—at home or remotely.

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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