The true name for what janitorial staff does is health care — after all, it’s their efforts that manage and prevent disease and infection transfer. Cleaning is the first and biggest step to keeping a facility and its occupants healthy. Sanitizing or disinfecting is often the second step toward this goal — but do you need a hospital-grade disinfectant, a sterilant, or a sanitizer? And how do you disinfect safely?
The difference between cleaners, sanitizers, disinfectants, virucides, and sterilants
A cleaner simply aids in removing soil from a surface. Although cleaning does remove germs from surfaces (CDC) — it doesn’t kill them.
A sanitizer lowers the number of germs on surfaces to levels that are considered safe by public health organizations. These products tend to be faster and safer than disinfectants, but disinfectants usually have broader kill claims.
A disinfectant kills infectious fungi, bacteria, and viruses on hard environmental surfaces.
There are a few kinds of disinfectant:
A disinfectant that is effective against only a specific major group of microorganisms (such as gram-positive [e.g., Staphylococcus aureus] or gram-negative [e.g., Salmonella enterica] bacteria).
- General or Broad-spectrum
A disinfectant that is effective against both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella enterica) is considered to be a general or broad spectrum disinfectant.
A disinfectant that can be a general or broad-spectrum disinfectant and is effective against the nosocomial bacterial pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a Hospital disinfectant.
A virucide destroys or irreversibly inactivates viruses in the inanimate environment.
A sterilant is used to destroy or eliminate all forms of microbial life including:
- All forms of bacteria and their spores
Any product that claims to kill bacteria, viruses, mold or fungi must be registered with the EPA as a pesticide.
So which do you need? Let’s go to the experts. The Center for Disease Controls and Prevention has these recommendations about cleaning:
Disinfecting health care facilities
Acute health care requires disinfection and sterilizing. The CDC gives thorough guidelines for acute healthcare facilities in its Guidelines for Disinfection and Sterilization in Healthcare Facilities. Typically, cleaning and disinfection are part of a larger infection control plan that also controls hygiene practices and other critical health care procedures.
One of the key things to note is that, even in health care, disinfectants don’t need be used everywhere. For example, the CDC states that disinfecting noncritical environmental surfaces like floors and walls makes no difference in health care-associated infection rates. However, disinfecting floors and not following a proper two-step process can cause residue build-up. Disinfectants are generally poor cleaners and leave sticky residue on surfaces, allowing them get dirty again fast.
Disinfecting schools and other public buildings
Facilities like schools, stores or other public spaces can use a multi-purpose cleaner or sanitizer, with targeted disinfection, on areas where specific disinfection is needed. Remember, cleaning alone does remove germs from surfaces. A thorough cleaning and sanitizing program can reduce germs and bacteria to appropriate levels while providing a safer chemical program for your facility.
It’s critical to understand why and how disinfectants should be used. The California Department of Health states that “it is well documented that disinfectants are associated with both acute and chronic health problems.” Disinfectants are pesticides and frequently pose hazards to human and environmental health. For this reason, limiting disinfectant use to critical areas is an important part of a safer, greener cleaning system.
For more information, see the Infection Control Handbook and the CDC's guide on cleaning and disinfecting schools.
If you do need a disinfectant, it’s crucial to follow the CDC’s recommend two-step process.
- Clean the surface thoroughly.
- Use the sanitizer or disinfectant on the surface according to directions, allowing the labelled dwell time to occur.
The two-step process is critical for a few reasons. First, pre-cleaning surfaces is a required step for disinfectants. Dirty surfaces can interfere with the effectiveness of disinfectants, meaning you’re not actually killing the bugs you think you are. Second, if done correctly every time, it can reduce the sticky residue left behind by disinfectants.
It’s also important to select the right disinfectant. Remember, disinfectants, sanitizers, and other EPA-registered products aren’t eligible for green certifications. This makes it trickier to select the safest disinfectant for your facility — and they aren’t all created equal. For some additional tips on how to select a safer chemical, visit our “Choosing the Best Cleaners” guide to learn about other ways to check for health and safety.
Lastly, it’s important to note that proper cleaning and disinfection is only one piece of a complete infection prevention program. The CDC recommends vaccinations and hand hygiene as the first lines of defense against the spread of infectious diseases.
“To help slow the spread of influenza (flu), the first line of defense is getting vaccinated. Other measures include keeping sick people away from others, covering coughs and sneezes, and washing hands.”