Disinfecting vs sanitising; do you know the difference_

With the words ‘disinfect’ and ‘sanitise’ becoming interchangeable over time, it is easy to get them confused or even assume they describe the same process.

When talking about cleaning in a home or business scenario it might be said that you would:

‘Clean’ your teeth or shoes

‘Disinfect’ a rabbit hutch or dog bed

Or ‘sanitise’ dental equipment or a food preparation area

So is there a difference between sanitising and disinfecting?

And if there is; are we putting the best practices into use?

Cleaning meaning

Cleaning is a process whereby you remove visible dirt and debris;

For example if you were to wipe down a surface with a hot wet cloth after something has been spilt or mop a muddy floor with hot water, this would remove the visible signs of anything having been there in the first place. Assuming that no cleaning products were added to the water, this process would only reduce the number of bacteria. It would not kill the all germs or viruses that may have been on the surface in the first place.

Hot water generally needs to be above 60 degrees Celsius before it starts to kill off certain bacteria and viruses.

What is the difference between disinfection and sanitisation?

When it comes to disinfection and sanitisation there IS a difference;

However, let’s start with how these two methods are the same;

Disinfectants and sanitisers are both made up of varying mixes of chemical substances such as:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Acid
  • Chloramine
  • Chlorine Dioxide
  • Triclosan

Related content: Antibacterial cleaners; the issues facing our health and our environment

The products containing these, and other known chemicals, kill a wide range of micro-organisms. Many claiming to kill 99.999% of bacteria and viruses on the surfaces they are applied too.

Disinfection or sanitisation is used in the majority of homes and many industries such as hospitals, vets, kitchens, medical centres, hotels, and dentists to ensure infection causing bacteria are eliminated.

The standards for some businesses are set by the government to keep people healthy and protected.

Related link: UK Government - public health

Sanitisation vs disinfection

A broad explanation of how these two terms differ would be:

 Sanitising kills all bacteria at a faster rate than a disinfectant

‘A disinfectant is a product that completely destroys all specific test organisms in 10 minutes under conditions of the AOAC Use Dilution Test, whereas a sanitiser is a product which destroys 99.999% (or a 5-log reduction) of specified test bacteria in 30 seconds under conditions of the Official Detergent Sanitiser Test’ – Food Safety Magazine

Why would I choose sanitiser and not disinfectant?

So as to understand why you may choose a sanitiser over a disinfectant here are some examples:

A public house cleans its glasses with a sanitiser; as the contact time to kill pathogens, is less than 30 seconds it eliminates bacteria and viruses quickly, saving any time that may be wasted waiting for the glasses to be ready for use.

This next example could be applied to both a domestic or commercial situation. Imagine you are cooking a meal; you plan on handling raw meat, vegetables and fish during the process.  Between each food type you need to ensure than any remnants of the last product are not left on the top to avoid cross-contamination. Using a disinfectant would kill the same pathogens as a sanitiser however; it would need a longer contact time in between application to ensure the surface was free of any bacteria.

In addition to the time element, some disinfectants like chlorine continue to emit fumes after application.

A number of sanitisers are safe to use around food so are therefore the preferred choice for a number of industries.

With all this in mind, are we all using bacteria killing products responsibly?

In your home or industry, do you think there is potential for a safer alternative with your cleaning products?

There is a price to pay; with all the cleaning products available today, killing 99.999% bacteria has an adverse effect on humans and the environment.

Related content: Problems with strong disinfectant; why bacteria are important

How do disinfectants and sanitisers affect the environment?

One of the most common household disinfectants is bleach.  This product is available in different strengths (depending on its intended use) and can be bought relatively cheaply compared to other disinfectants so it is easy to see why it is a popular choice.

Unfortunately when bleach or chorine is disposed of it can have a negative effect on our water our soil, our wild life and even our air quality.

Water pollution from chlorine

When chlorine is disposed of into our water system it reacts with other organic materials to create persistent organic pollutants (POP’s)

Persistent organic pollutants – ‘a hazardous organic chemical compound that is resistant to bio degradation and thus remains in the environment for a long period of time’

Because these POP’s are highly resistant and do not biodegrade, they can travel long distances.  POP’s are then absorbed into the fatty tissues and organs of aquatic animals where they have toxic effects.

Can chlorine affect my air quality?

A typical example of air pollution from chlorine or sodium hypochlorite is in an indoor swimming pool or hot tub being treated with this chemical.  Toxic gases (by-products) are released from the chemical reaction between ammonia and chlorine. These gases can damage the lining of the lungs, which can lead to respiratory problems.

Related content: Cleaning with bleach

What next?

Certainly around your home, the choice of products is down to you.

What can you do to make this choice a smarter and more informed one?

There are several things you can do before you next buy disinfectant for your home or business:

Check the ingredients; what ingredients are in my disinfectant?

Cleaning products only have to list the main ingredient families in the product. This should include how much of each there is in the product in a series of weight ranges e.g. ‘Non-ionic surfactants < 5%’ Manufacturers also have to put a website address on the packaging of where you can get a list of each specific ingredient rather than just the families.

There are over 40 different chemicals that could be categorised as a ‘Non-ionic surfactant’ which doesn’t make it easy to determine the products that are safe for you, your family or your business.

Some more responsible cleaning products manufacturers list all their ingredients on their packaging.

Does my disinfectant have BSEN 1276 approval or similar?

BS EN 1276 is the European standard for the bactericidal activity of chemical disinfectants as proof of effective infection control against harmful micro-organisms such as MRSA, Salmonella, E.Coli, Flu Virus (H1N1) and Pseudomonas Aeruginosa.  In order to pass this standard, products have been tested by an independent laboratory and must prove a bacteria kill rate of 99.999% within 5 minutes.

Is the product environmentally friendly?  

Make sure that the product itself is sustainable and safe to return to the environment.  This logo is widely used and shows that the product is biodegradable with the number of days for actual biodegrading in the centre.

Is the packaging recyclable?

Check to see if the packaging states whether or not it is recyclable.  This may be in the form of words or it could also be stated with a symbol.

HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) is widely recycled, in both its rigid form (e.g., containers) and flexible form (e.g., bags)

Where you see the HDPE symbol (opposite) indicates that the packaging is recyclable or, in the case where there is a number in the centre, the packaging made from previously recycled plastic and can be recycled again.

Is my disinfectant safe - BSEN1276
Biodegrade in 6 days
HDPE symbols (1)

We all need to be able to control the spread of infectious disease but this should not come along saddled with ill effects and a multitude of dangers.

Let’s try to keep ourselves, our families and the environment clean, healthy and safe.

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