Cleaning vs. Disinfecting vs. Sanitizing: What’s the Difference?

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Cleaning vs. Disinfecting vs. Sanitizing

Cleaning vs. disinfecting vs. sanitizing what should you be doing? It is a common misconception that cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing are all interchangeable names for the same process, when in fact, they all have very different purposes and outcomes and require the use of different tools and ingredients.

Here, we are going to take a look at all three, considering how they differ and discussing when each different process is appropriate or required. We will also give some brief advice on how each can be done using only natural, non-toxic ingredients. Whether you’re cleaning, disinfecting, or sanitizing, there is no need to bring any harmful, toxic chemicals into your home or around your loved ones.

ImageProductOur RatingPrice
E-Cloth General Purpose Cleaning ClothE-Cloth General Purpose Cleaning Cloth
  • 4-Pack E-Cloth, just add water for multiple cleaning purposes and surfaces, always have one available
  • Microfibers trap and remove dirt, debris, grime, and over 99% of bacteria from hard surfaces and appliances just using water
  • Easy to use, machine washable, eco-friendly, and effective
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Seventh Generation Disinfecting Bathroom CleanerSeventh Generation Disinfecting Bathroom Cleaner
  • Effectively Controls Odors
  • No rinsing or wiping is required after using (even on food contact surfaces)
  • When used as directed, kills 99.99% of household germs and is effective against the influenza A virus
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CleanWell Botanical Disinfecting WipesCleanWell Botanical Disinfecting Wipes
  • Plant-derived, multi-surface cleaning wipes made without chemicals, no rinsing required even on children's toys or food contact surfaces
  • Antibacterial to disinfect, kills 99.9% of household germs and odor-causing bacteria, mold, and mildew
  • Voted Best Disinfecting Wipes by Parents magazine, cruelty-free
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Cleaning vs. Disinfecting vs. Sanitizing


Cleaning a surface or area means removing any surface-level dust, dirt, or debris. This process is not necessarily intended to kill or reduce bacteria, but it will remove unsightly dirt, stains, spillages, or residues. Vacuuming, sweeping, dusting, and wiping down surfaces with a damp cloth, cleaning wipes, and soap would all fall under the broad heading of cleaning.

Cleaning regularly is important when maintaining a clean and tidy space and can instantly uplift an area of the home. It should also be used as a primary step when disinfecting or sanitizing a space. Without first removing residual, surface-level dirt, you won’t be able to thoroughly kill or remove bacteria and germs.

By cleaning regularly, you can also prevent the growth of bacteria and viruses. This is because cleaning removes any organic matter from the area, meaning there are fewer germs and fewer opportunities for bacteria to grow and multiply.

Cleaning Without Harmful Chemicals

Soap and water are typically used to clean surfaces, and you can find plenty of all-natural soaps that will do a great job. Castile Soaps are great at lifting dirt and freshening up hard surfaces, they can also be used on soft furnishings and carpets and there are lots of great, all-natural options available on the market.

Dr. Bronner’s - Pure-Castile Liquid Soap (Lavender, 8 ounce) - Made with Organic Oils, 18-in-1 Uses: Face, Body, Hair, Laundry, Pets and Dishes, Concentrated, Vegan, Non-GMODr. Bronner’s – Pure-Castile Liquid Soap

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Tools such as mops, vacuums, microfiber cloths, and scrubbing sponges are all extremely useful when cleaning various surfaces or areas. By combining these with a good quality, natural cleaning detergent or soap, you can keep your space visually clear from debris and dirt and make disinfecting much more efficient.

Related: Do Natural Cleaning Products Work?

ImageProductOur RatingPrice
Top Choice
Shark NV356E S2 Navigator Lift-Away Professional Upright Vacuum
Shark NV356E S2 Navigator Lift-Away Professional Upright Vacuum
  • Large dust cup capacity with lift away functionality to easily clean hard to reach areas
  • Anti-allergen complete seal technology plus a HEPA filter that traps 99.9 percent of dust and allergens
  • Powerful and lightweight, brush roll shutoff, deep carpet, and gentle bare floor cleaning
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BISSELL 2252 CleanView Swivel Upright Bagless VacuumBISSELL 2252 CleanView Swivel Upright Bagless Vacuum
  • Powerful pet hair pick up with triple action brush roll with scatter free technology
  • Swivel steering to easily maneuver around furniture and other obstacles
  • Clean edges and corners with edge-to-edge cleaning 
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Best Value
eureka NEU182A PowerSpeed Bagless Upright Vacuum
eureka NEU182A PowerSpeed Bagless Upright Vacuum
  • Powerful vacuum cleaner with 5 height adjustments and XL dust cup
  • Smooth wheels ensure hardwood floors won’t sustain scratches or gouges
  • Multiple accessories are included to extract dirt, pet hair, freshen up your car, curtains, ceilings, or door frames
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Disinfecting an area means killing germs and bacteria using chemical or naturally derived cleaning agents. Generally, you will need to leave the disinfecting agent to sit on the surface for several minutes to allow it to thoroughly kill the bacteria. The length of time it should be left for will depend on the specific ingredient or product that you are using.

Disinfecting should be carried out immediately after the initial cleaning process. By disinfecting the area, you are destroying the microorganisms that are present on the surface. These microorganisms might cause viruses or infections, so it is important that they are not left to multiply, particularly in areas such as the bathroom, kitchen, or nursery.

Related: How to Sanitize and Disinfect Carpet Without a Steam Cleaner

Disinfecting Without Harmful Chemicals

Bleach is the most commonly used disinfectant, but it is also super harsh and toxic if ingested or inhaled. There are various all-natural disinfectants out there, though, including white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, hot water, and some essential oils such as tea tree or citrus oils.

Each of these has antibacterial properties and will effectively kill many known viruses and bacteria. You will need to leave these agents to sit on the surface for between ten and thirty minutes to ensure that all of the bacteria have been destroyed.


Sanitizing a surface or area will remove some bacteria but might not kill all viruses.

Sanitizing might not necessarily kill all of the present bacteria, but it will lower the germ count to a level that is considered safe for that specific item or area. The key difference between disinfectants and sanitizers is that disinfectants are typically stronger and more effective at killing a wider range of bacteria spores.

This is why we use hand sanitizer, and not hand disinfectant. Sanitizers are typically gentler and less abrasive and are less likely to result in any chemical burns or rashes if they come into contact with the skin. Of course, this is less of an issue if you are using natural disinfectants, but having some bacteria on the skin is actually not a bad thing. These good bacteria help us to fight off germs and keep our immune systems in order. Using disinfectants on the hands will also strip any of the natural, protective oils from the skin and cause dryness or irritation.

So, sanitizing is less thorough than disinfecting, but also less abrasive.  

Sanitizing Without Harmful Chemicals

Steam or hot water can be used to sanitize, as can high-pressure sanitizer appliances that are commonly used for baby bottles and other equipment.

Handheld Steam Cleaner, Steamer for Cleaning, 10 in 1 Handheld Steamer for Cleaning, Upholstery Steamer Cleaner, Car Steamer, Steam Cleaner for Surface Cleaning Home, Sofa, Bathroom, Car seat, OfficeHandheld Steam Cleaner

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Any of the products or methods listed in the disinfectant section can also be used to sanitize. Sanitizing does not require the product to be left to sit for quite so long, usually up to 10 minutes will be sufficient.

Related: How to Start a Cleaning Business in 10 Simple Steps

Final Thoughts on Cleaning vs. Disinfecting vs. Sanitizing: What’s the Difference?

Cleaning, Disinfecting, and Sanitizing are all important steps in achieving and maintaining the cleanliness of our homes, workspaces, cars, or any other space or item. When it comes to cleaning tasks you need to think through what is needed, cleaning vs. disinfecting vs. sanitizing to know how to approach each job.

Typically, disinfectants should be used in places where there is a high amount of handling or traffic. Door handles, toilets, light switches, and remote controls should all be disinfected regularly to remove bacteria and prevent illness or cross-contamination.

Kitchen surfaces, dishes, and any other areas that are likely to come into contact with food should be sanitized to prevent the ingestion of any chemicals (even natural chemicals or ingredients such as essential oils or hydrogen peroxide should not be ingested).

Finally, regular cleaning can be carried out as often as is required to keep your space looking and feeling clean and clutter-free, and should always be your first step before moving on to disinfecting or sanitizing.

By following this guidance, you should be able to effectively clean, disinfect, and sanitize as is needed, and without the need for any toxic cleaning ingredients.