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The Difference Between Clean, Sanitized, Disinfected, and Sterile – What Do You Really Need to Be Safe? 

July 24, 2020
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The Difference Between Clean, Sanitized, Disinfected, and Sterile – What Do You Really Need to Be Safe? 

When people hear the words clean, sanitized, disinfected, and sterile, they often think about the same things. This can lead to confusion about what each of these words actually means. While colloquially they all have similar connotations and meanings, in the world of cleaning, they actually have very important distinctions, and, in a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, each of these distinctions is incredibly important. In fact, each of these words actually refers to a different “level”, so to speak, of cleaning. 

In this guide, we’ll discuss the different meanings of each of these terms, what you need to do to be safe, and how LACOSTA’s cleaning services make use of these different methods. 

What Do Each of These Terms Mean? 


Cleaning refers to the process of removing germs, dirt, and other artifacts from surfaces or objects, and it typically works by using some form of soap or detergent combined with water to scrub and physically remove the different contaminants from the surface. It is important to understand that the process of cleaning does not necessarily kill the germs. Instead, the process removes them from the surface area, thereby reducing the germ count and decreasing the overall chance of spread. 


Sanitizing takes the process a step further than cleaning and is meant for surfaces that don’t typically come in contact with dangerous bacteria and which are best cleaned without the powerful chemicals used in the disinfection and sterilization processes. Sanitizing, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), refers to lowering the number of germs on a surface to a safe level “as judged by public health standards or requirements”. While the process can be completed either through cleaning or disinfecting, it does not kill the high percentage of germs that a full disinfecting process does.  

It is important to note that many sanitizing agents only reduce the specific bacteria and other contaminants listed on the products label. You should not expect the product to have a significant impact on germs and bacteria not listed.

Additionally, sanitization is mostly ineffective against viruses, instead being a process best suited for the removal of harmful bacteria.


Disinfecting takes the process of sanitizing a surface area one step further. With disinfecting, you are actually killing the germs and other microbial contaminants on the surface through the use of a chemical agent, such as Clorox (a common household cleaning brand most Americans are familiar with). This process destroys and inactivates both bacteria and viruses (like influenza). It should be noted that this process works best on hard, non-porous surfaces, which are in general easier to clean effectively. Disinfecting a surface is one of the best ways to help reduce the spread of germs and viruses. 


Sterilization is similar to disinfecting in that they are both processes for killing and inactivating harmful microorganisms and viruses. However, whereas disinfecting only kills some of these contaminants, the process of sterilization kills all microorganisms. Sterilization is a term you would expect to hear in a hospital where such processes are necessary for operation rooms and other areas where people are at an extremely high risk of contracting some sort of virus or bacterial infection. 

The process of sterilization is typically not practical for the home or for the workplace and involves a much more intense process using chemicals and other agents generally harmful to humans. Cleaning services and products therefore provide services that either clean, sterilize, or disinfect areas and surfaces, not sterilize. 

Why is Disinfecting So Important? 

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, there was typically nothing wrong with only sanitizing areas. However, the process of disinfecting surface areas instead of only sanitizing them has become increasingly important as businesses and companies look to prevent and decrease the chance of virus spread in the workplace. 

Particularly important to understand is that disinfectants – not sanitizers – are the only products that are approved by the EPA to kill viruses on hard, non-porous, surfaces (you can confirm that a disinfectant is approved by the EPA by looking on the label for an EPA registration number, which can then be used to on the EPA’s site to find out if it is effective against COVID-19). Sanitizers on the other hand are, for the most part, only approved to kill bacteria, as opposed to disinfectants, which can handle both bacteria and viruses. 

This means that workplaces and other places of business looking to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus should be looking into having their facilities disinfected, rather than sanitized, as this will be the best form of protection and prevention. While there is no way to be 100% safe from the virus, having a strong, sophisticated disinfecting process is the best preventative action that can be taken. 

How Can LACOSTA’s Facility Support Services Help Your Workplace Fight Against COVID-19?  

At LACOSTA, our team consists of highly trained professionals who are experienced in nearly every work environment, allowing us to offer a comprehensive list of solutions and services for essentially any cleaning problem. Our janitorial and disinfection services include a whole host of general cleaning and additional service offerings, allowing us to meet the needs of each and every customer. 

How is LACOSTA Adapting to COVID-19 and Constantly Changing Guidelines? 

In our new normal, we have enhanced our cleaning efforts with all of our clients, making sure we are constantly adhering to changing CDC cleaning recommendations. We do this through daily reporting, monthly meetings, and quarterly reviews. This has enabled our clients to create a comfortable work-place environment for their employees, who can feel confident that their managers are placing their safety and health first and doing all they can to prevent the spread of the virus. 

One of the things we pride ourselves on is our flexibility and adaptability. As standards, protocols, and guidelines change throughout the pandemic, and as the needs of individual businesses and workplaces change, we are always ready to make the necessary changes to our cleaning procedures and methods. 


While the differences between clean, sanitized, disinfected, and sterile may not seem substantial to the everyday American, as you can see, for those in our industry, they are incredibly important. As the pandemic progresses, understanding them has become even more vital.

To learn more about how the right janitorial partner can help your business during this difficult time, delivering high-quality service and peace of mind, don’t hesitate to reach out to us or give us a call.

Plus, be sure to keep checking our blog for more great information about the different cleaning processes and services that can help your business continue to facilitate a safe, productive working environment, while at the same time putting your employees’ health and safety first and foremost.

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