Cleaning, Sanitizing, Disinfecting and Sterilizing – What is the Difference?

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused increased tensions relating to public health. Measures are being taken to create environments that are safe and free of risks to health and safety. These measures include cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing environments; but how do these differ?

A state of cleanliness is that which is free of dirt, stains and marks that can otherwise serve as a hotspot for bacteria and germs to spread onto. We clean all the time. We put dirty laundry in designated spots for processing, remove dust from countertops, and wipe our hands with a towel after servicing our automobiles. All these actions serve to remove surfaces of foreign elements such as dirt, dust, and oil.

Disinfecting implies an object has been infected. Infections are pathogens attempting to spread throughout a body’s tissues, release toxins and cause damage to the body. When you are sick, symptoms are signs that your body is attempting to kill the pathogen itself. Disinfection is the elimination of these pathogens. We typically use chemicals, called disinfectants, to inactivate or destroy pathogens so that infections cease and cannot be spread.

Different types of disinfectants exist; air disinfectants target airborne microorganisms and usually come as sprays. Alcohols are another kind of disinfectant, commonly found in hand sanitizers in the form of methanol, ethanol, and isopropyl alcohol. Oxidizers such as bleach and various peroxides oxidize the membranes of microorganism cells. This effectively leads to cell death.

Disinfectants that are meant for use on the body are called antiseptics. Some disinfectants are harmful to humans, such as pesticides and cyanide – and even alcohol. The use of these chemicals must be moderated to avoid accidental ingestion while eating an apple, for example.

Sterilizing is like disinfecting; in that it involves directly killing pathogens. The difference lies in the amount. When disinfecting, pathogen levels are brought down to an acceptable level for human interaction without risk of contracting an illness – a sanitary state. Sterilizing involves eliminating all life of pathogens and creating a completely germ-free environment.

You may consider all these above concepts to be sanitizing processes. This is because sanitizing refers to the act of lowering the number of infectious microorganisms in an area. Sanitizing can also mean the prevention of pathogen accumulation– such as wearing a mask whilst exploring an area that may potentially contain foreign bacteria, as well as practicing safe social distancing. These preventative measures are the most effective techniques for ensuring adequate health.

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