With the new strain of coronavirus, words like cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing are frequently thrown around. But what do they mean? We explain their differences and how each can be properly done below.

Brief Definitions

  1. Cleaning – The process of removing dirt, grim, and objects from a surface or organizing an area.
  2. Sanitizing – The process of removing germs and bacteria from a surface.
  3. Disinfecting – The process of killing germs, bacteria, and viruses
  4. Sterilizing – The process of destroying all microbial life from a surface, not just bacteria and viruses

How to Do It

Cleaning - Most of us know basic cleaning practices because we take care of our homes. Cleaning commercial environments are no different. It can be accomplished by putting items in their proper place, removing clutter, and using a combination of tools to remove dirt and impurities. Common items necessary for proper cleaning include soaps, detergents, vacuums, dusters, degreasers, and glass cleaners. Which ones are used depends on the surface being cleaned.


Sanitizing – Sanitization should be completed after the object has been cleaned. The sanitization process is dependent on the object. For example, dishes are sanitized when run through a dishwasher. Other surfaces are sanitized with the use of specially made wipes and cleaners. The best way to sanitize food prep areas is to clean it, rinse it, sanitize it, and then let it air dry.

Disinfecting – Accomplished by bleach, alcohol, chlorine, or products that contain them, disinfecting items should be completed on high-traffic areas and surfaces that touch bodily fluids. Bathrooms come to mind.

Sterilizing – Chemicals, steam, heat, and radiation sterilize areas. While not necessary for homes or most commercial businesses, it is frequently done in hospitals and healthcare facilities. Some dishwashers are built to sterilize dishes.

When to Do What

Areas should be cleaned when they get dirty. Sounds too simple, but maintaining a clean environment reduces the risk of pests, increases efficiency, and improves morale.


Sanitize tables and chairs after each customer leaves. This is commonly accomplished with a bleach/water mixture, a pair of gloves, and a rag. Frequently touched items should be sanitized and areas where food is prepared.

Follow these guidelines for sanitizing food prep areas:

  • Sanitize the area after each task is performed
  • Sanitize the area when switching from one type of food/ingredient to another
  • Sanitize the area if the task is interrupted upon your return
  • Sanitize every four hours

Disinfect light switches, handles, elevator buttons, bathroom surfaces, and other commonly touched items every day. When colds, flu, or viruses break out, this task should be completed more often – several times a day. Surfaces should be disinfected every time they come in contact with bodily fluids.

To disinfect an area, clean it, rinse it, disinfect it, and rinse it again. The disinfectant should be left for a period of time, giving it time to kill bacteria.

Sterilizing is typically not performed in commercial kitchen environments.

Warning About Products

When using a cleaner, sanitizer, or disinfectant, read the labels, warnings, and instructions displayed on the bottle. Always keep them in the containers they come in and out of the reach of children. It is a smart idea to have an area designated for all cleaners so they are not misplaced and can safely and easily be stored.


Some sanitizers and disinfectants are not safe for contact with human skin. Read the labels to be sure and have gloves and protective eye gear at the ready just in case. If these products are accidentally touched, read the containers for instructions, or call a medical professional immediately.

To be considered a sanitizer, it must kill up to 99.9 percent of germs. To be a disinfectant, it must kill 99.999 percent of germs. This percentage makes a much greater difference than one would expect. These are the standards outlined by the EPA.

Develop a Schedule

To properly clean, sanitize, and disinfect areas, develop a schedule with staff. This will let everyone know who does what and when it is to be done. Stay on task so that no surfaces are overlooked.

This is ever more imperative with the rise of superbugs and new strains of viruses like COVID-19. Read the CDC’s guidelines for COVID-19 here.


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