Tricks of the Trade

Cleaning vs. disinfecting: What's the difference?

Linda Luna, a Ferguson author  

by Linda Luna


Cleaning and disinfecting may seem like interchangable terms, but these actions have subtle differences with not-so-subtle implications. Understanding the little differences can play a big role in keeping harmful germs at bay.

Understanding the difference between cleaning and disinfecting

Any surface can be covered in visible and invisible containants, like dirt, bacteria and microbes. Cleaning means simply removing these contaminants from a surface. Chemical cleaners, like soap or detergent, loosen contaminants so they can be rinsed away easily with water. While cleaning can reduce the number of harmful substances on a given surface, it does not directly address the problem of germs.

Disinfecting, on the other hand, kills the germs that live on a surface but does not remove them. As a result, surfaces should be cleaned before disinfection. Dirt and other debris can also prevent disinfectants from working properly

Cleaning vs. sanitizing

Cleaning and disinfecting are often associated with sanitizing as well. Sanitizing involves reducing the amount of germs or other potentially harmful pathogens to a safe level. A surface can be sanitized through cleaning or disinfecting if the final results meet the safe levels determined by health and safety standards.

Consider the labels carefully

Cleaners and disinfectants come in many different forms, and the sheer variety can make purchasing decisions difficult. When selecting protection against germs for use in the home or workplace, ensure that the product is approved as a disinfectant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Approved products will include an EPA registration number.

Proper use also ensures proper disinfection. Many disinfectants include information on how long the product must remain on the surface to kill as many germs as possible. Review these instructions carefully to maximize the effectiveness of your disinfectant.

Pro Tip: The Centers for Disease Control recommends regularly cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces like door handles and light switches. Public-use objects, like shopping carts, should be cleaned and disinfected before every use.

What about wipes?

There’s a variety of cleaning wipes available on the market, but not all wipes can be used for the same applications. Some wipes are made to disinfect surfaces, while other wipes are made for hands and skin. Disinfectant surface wipes are regulated by the EPA. Using an EPA-approved disinfecting wipe is a safe and effective way to kill germs on surfaces when used according to manufacturer directions, but is not recommended for use on skin as this can cause irritation. Sanitizing wipes made for hands are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration to safely kill germs on skin without irritation. Learn more facts about using hand sanitizers to slow the spread of germs. With a broad selection of cleaners and disinfectants in stock, Ferguson can support you in your defense against germs. Find what you need to stop the spread of harmful contaminants by shopping online at

Linda Luna, a Ferguson author  
Linda Luna

Linda's expert knowledge of PPE and sanitation product supply chains help business owners uphold workplace health and safety.