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Is There a Difference Between Cleaning and Disinfecting?

March 24, 2020
Published in: COVID-19, Infectious Disease

Woman cleaning a bathroom sink wearing rubber gloves

We're all concerned about germs and the spread of viruses today—so it's important to ask, "What's the difference between cleaning a surface and disinfecting it?"

Cleaning refers to the removal of germs and dirt from surfaces. Cleaning will not kill germs; it simply removes them or reduces the number of germs in order to lower the risk of infection.

Disinfecting is a process that uses chemicals to kill germs. In order to eliminate COVID-19 and reduce the risk of spreading the virus, the CDC recommends that hard surfaces be cleaned AND disinfected frequently using household cleaners and EPA-registered disinfectants.

Areas that should be frequently cleaned and disinfected are those commonly touched such as tables, hard-back chairs, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, cell phones, tablets, remotes, toilets, faucets, sinks, and kitchen counters.

For disinfection, the use of dilute household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, disinfectant wipes and EPA-registered household disinfectants are considered effective. Disposable gloves should be worn and discarded after each cleaning. If surfaces are visibly dirty, they should be cleaned with a detergent/soap and water prior to disinfection. According to the CDC, it is important to have proper ventilation when applying bleach products to surfaces. You should always check to ensure the product is not past its expiration date.

Never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleaners! When preparing a bleach solution, one of the following guidelines should be used:

  • 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) bleach per gallon of water
  • 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water

Recommendations for washing clothes, towels, linens, and sheets:

Disposable gloves should be worn when handling dirty laundry. Do not shake dirty laundry. This will minimize the possibility of dispersing the virus through the air. Clothing items should be washed in the warmest water possible and should be dried completely. Clean and disinfect clothes hampers and baskets. Consider placing a bag liner that is either disposable (can be thrown away) or can be laundered.

If a person is ill with COVID-19, the following procedures are recommended:

The ill person should have their own personal cleaning supplies for their room and bathroom. If a separate bathroom for the ill person is not available, the bathroom should be cleaned and disinfected after each use by the ill person. When removing garbage bags, handling, and disposing of trash, gloves should be worn.

Visit the CDC to learn more about Cleaning and Disinfection recommendations.