Sanitize vs. disinfect: Learn the difference and why it’s important

Sanitizing, disinfecting—how serious do you need to get when you are deep cleaning your home? First off—cleaning is always good! Cleaning uses soap or detergent to remove visible dirt from a surface, and it’s an important first step in properly sanitizing or disinfecting any surface. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic has focused the world on killing germs, you’ve probably heard the words "sanitize" and "disinfect" more often than ever. Sometimes they’re used interchangeably, but they each have a different definition. Knowing when to apply each will help you clean your home safely and effectively.

Putting hand sanitizer in your palm
Putting hand sanitizer in your palm

Table of contents

Sanitizing vs. disinfectingSanitizingDisinfectingWhen to sanitize or disinfect at homeIs bleach a sanitizer or a disinfectant?What does it mean to sterilize when cleaning?

Sanitizing vs. disinfecting

According to the EPA’s public health standards, a sanitizer “reduces the number of germs on a surface by 99.999% within 30 seconds.” while a disinfectant “kills germs on contact when the disinfectant dwells on the surface for a specified length of time.” Those specific lengths of time are called contact times or dwell times and they have a big impact on how successfully the cleaning product can do its job. Always look up a product’s recommended contact time before using.

Sanitizing and disinfecting both eliminate germs more than cleaning does (cleaning removes germs but isn’t necessarily killing them), but they each do so at different strengths. Both sanitizing and disinfecting require that you clean as the first step. Without first removing dirt, a product will not work the way it was intended. For many surfaces or objects in our homes, cleaning will be plenty, but high touch surfaces like “tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks,” as defined by the Center for Disease Control, sometimes require the additional step of sanitizing or disinfecting.


Sanitizing products are only required to reduce the number of germs. They also do not completely kill viruses (like colds and the flu) or funghi (like mold and athlete’s foot), but they are handy for bringing germs on high touch surfaces down to a safe level, especially when those surfaces are things in our homes like food and cooking areas and dishes that we wouldn’t want in contact with the harsh chemicals in disinfectants.

Using spray to clean a surface in your home


While cleaning and then sanitizing will reduce germs on a surface, cleaning and disinfecting properly will completely kill all germs on a surface and can help lower the risk of spreading infection in your home. Disinfectants are used to clean surfaces that come in contact with lots of dangerous germs that people can spread through touch and bodily fluids. To become an EPA-registered household disinfectant, the product must be able to kill 100% of bacteria, viruses, and funghi when used correctly.

When to sanitize or disinfect at home

Sanitize surfaces in your kitchen with any food contact, such as kitchen counters, especially if you tend to prep food directly on your countertops. 

Disinfect when you are trying to prevent the spread of dangerous germs and when bodily fluids are involved—hey there, bathrooms. It’s especially important to disinfect high touch areas when someone in your household gets sick—that includes tables, hard-backed chairs, doorknobs, light switches, phones, tablets, touch screens, remote controls, keyboards, handles, desks, toilets, and sinks—in addition to surfaces in their bedroom because unlike bacteria, viruses can only be killed through disinfecting or sterilizing.

You can simply clean areas in your house that don’t get a lot of human touch, and therefore are less exposed to harmful bacteria. For example, you don’t need to sanitize your walls and baseboards, cleaning with soap and water is enough.

Disinfecting your hand with wipes

Is bleach a sanitizer or a disinfectant?

Bleach can be both a sanitizer or a disinfectant depending on its strength and how it is used. If you are going to use bleach to sanitize or disinfect, read the fine print on the packaging, compare it to the EPA’s recommendations. If you can’t find the fine print, look it up on the manufacturer’s website. Note—never mix ammonia and bleach, or bleach with any other cleaner!

Common home sanitizers:

  • Bleach solutions (lower strength than for disinfectant use)

    • 1 tablespoon bleach per gallon of water

  • Heated, undiluted hydrogen peroxide

  • Heated, undiluted white vinegar

Common home disinfectants:

  • Bleach solutions (higher strength than for sanitizer use):

    • 5 tablespoons (1/3rd cup) bleach per gallon of water

    • Contact time of 1 minute

  • Alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol

The most important thing to do if you decide to use cleaning products to either sanitize or disinfect is to read the specifications of the product and follow those rules. The common products might be things you already have at home but if you aren’t comfortable determining their correct use, buy a product that is already labeled as a sanitizer or disinfectant and you won’t need to dilute on your own—just spray, abide by the contact time, and wipe.

What does it mean to sterilize when cleaning?

Sterilizing is not something that needs to be a part of your home cleaning. Disinfecting kills all of the bad, dangerous microbes, while sterilizing kills every single microbe, good or bad. It’s a process that is for the most part reserved for the medical field. Surgical tools get sterilized—it’s not something most people need to do at home. 

Understanding the different levels of cleaning you can do is important so that you know how to make the right choices for your home. Remember—cleaning is always the first step, so doing a deep cleaning in a room is a great place to start. Sanitize to reduce germs, disinfect to eliminate germs, and leave sterilizing for the pros.

Looking for a home where monthly cleaning is always on the books? Bungalow offers private rooms in shared homes that are more affordable than solo housing options in the same neighborhoods. Wifi, utilities, and monthly cleaning are set up before you move in so that communal living is seamless. Find a Bungalow near you.

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