Sanitize vs. Sterilize: Effectiveness of Each Method

Though people refer to cleaning tasks in general terms — things that should be done to keep a business looking and smelling fresh — there are different kinds of cleaning that are more or less effective, depending on the cleaning agents and methods used.

In some industries, it’s a requirement to know the difference between these cleaning methods. It’s also necessary to adopt the use of cleaning supplies and methods that not only remove dirt and make an area look and smell clean but also remove harmful microorganisms that can cause those who come into contact with them to become sick. 

What are the different types of cleaning methods and their results, and which one is best for your industry? No matter which type is the most effective for your business, Alsco can help ensure that you always have what you need to maintain compliance and keep the building disinfected, sterilized or sanitized as needed. 

What Is Sanitization? 

Sanitization kills bacteria on surfaces. Killing viruses is not its goal. 

Most cleaning supplies found in grocery stores and drugstores are a viable means of sanitizing a surface, though the specific attributes of those supplies will vary based on what is being cleaned. For example, hot water, a mop and a cleaning liquid may be used to sanitize the floor, whereas antibacterial sprays or wipes may be used to sanitize light switches, door handles and other surfaces commonly touched by multiple people. 

Depending on the industry, there may be appliances used to sanitize specific items. For example, a bottle washer may be used in labs to clean out test tubes that are used and reused, whereas a dishwasher in a restaurant will reach high temperatures to sanitize glassware, silverware and dishes. 

Note: Sanitization does not remove all viruses or other microorganisms, but it can help remove dirt, kill bacteria and lower the number of these germs to a safer level. Additionally, it is recommended to have hand sanitizers ready when soap and water are not available, or there is no time to wash hands thoroughly. 

What Is Sterilization?

Sterilization, unlike sanitization, is a cleaning process that removes all bacteria, viruses and microorganisms from a surface. Sterilization is most likely to be used only in settings where the removal of germs is a matter of life and death, such as a hospital. 

There are no cleaning supplies available for sterilization, but there are several methods that trained professionals employ to ensure an area is germ-free:

  • Different types of radiation, including ionizing radiation for medical equipment or infrared radiation.

  • Pressurized steam.

  • Different gases, such as hydrogen peroxide gas or ethylene oxide gas.

  • Dry heat cabinets, often used for medical equipment.

Note: These sterilization methods should only be employed by professionals who have been trained in their use. They are not to be dabbled in without the proper certification and training. 

What Is Disinfection?

Disinfection refers to the process of killing viruses and bacteria on a surface. Disinfection usually includes the use of cleaning supplies that contain bleach or alcohol. 

To work most efficiently, allow these cleaning chemicals to dry naturally on the surface for a specified time. Wiping them away will reduce or eliminate their efficacy, so it is important to clean when you can leave the surface alone for a while.

There are certain things to keep in mind when disinfecting a surface: 

  • Unlike sanitizing, disinfecting does not necessarily remove all dirt on a surface . It may be done as a part of the sanitization process to remove bacteria or viruses in addition to dirt.

  • Not all products are disinfectants. Check the labels to look for the word “disinfectant” as a descriptor.

  • Natural products may be limited in scope. Though many natural products claim to disinfect, most are not nearly as effective in wiping out the same spectrum of germs or may require a longer application time to be effective.

  • Not all disinfectants are designed to kill all kinds of germs. Some kinds are meant to kill fungi, whereas others are created to kill viruses. Knowing what you need to combat will help you choose the right disinfectant. 

  • Cross contamination should be avoided. This is true of all cleaning products, but it is especially important to avoid using cleaners that have different chemical active ingredients because they can have a reaction together.

  • Safety precautions should be used. Use gloves when handling chemicals and make sure that the space is well ventilated to avoid inhaling fumes. When done using a product, close the cap tightly and store it in a cool, dry place away from children. 

Sanitize vs. Sterilize: Which Is More Effective?

For the purposes of most businesses, regular sanitization is enough to keep the area clean and safe for users. However, any industry that regularly handles medical waste or deals with patients who are ill will need to sterilize the area as needed. This could mean sterilizing a container after each use or sterilizing an area at the end of each shift to ensure that the next person to arrive is not exposed to bacteria or viruses.

In restaurants, it may be necessary to engage in a disinfecting protocol whenever raw meat is handled to ensure that there is no cross contamination with other foods, especially foods that will be served raw. Sterilization may not be necessary except for a butcher or business that regularly handles live animals or products that require sterilization of utensils and equipment. 

COVID-19 & Best Business Cleaning Practices 

In a post-COVID-19 world, disinfecting surfaces is a natural part of protocol in every business. To mitigate the passing of germs among employees or from employees to consumers, certain protocols are recommended. 

In addition to washing hands regularly, it is also important to disinfectant commonly used surfaces frequently throughout the day:

  • Light switches.

  • Door handles.

  • Sinks and sink handles.

  • Toilets.

  • Phones.

  • Remote controls.

  • Anything children use, such as children’s waiting areas or toys.

Does My Industry Require Sanitization, Sterilization or Disinfection? 

It is important to investigate not only the industry standards for your place of business but also the state and local laws. Businesses that are subject to inspections will come with clear guidelines and expectations that are required.

All businesses, however, especially those that deal with the public, will benefit from maintaining high cleaning standards. A disease outbreak that occurs at a local gym or a food-borne illness contracted by patrons of a local restaurant will surely make the news and deter future customers from patronizing the establishment. 

Check out the FDA food codes that all restaurants must follow, and then explore the standards for your state here

Learn about the standards for maintaining a clean, safe environment for medical staff and patients here, and then find out what you need to know for cleaning and disinfecting your facility here, including information on the following:

  • When to clean versus when to disinfect an area or a piece of equipment.

  • Which routine cleaning practices are recommended.

  • What alternative disinfection options there are. 

  • How to clean and disinfect specific types of surfaces in the facility.

  • How to disinfect after exposure to someone who is known to be sick with a contagious illness.

Get Help Meeting & Maintaining Cleanliness Compliance Standards

To ensure that all employees and customers are kept safe and that compliance standards are maintained, it is essential to have a protocol in place for cleaning (both deep cleaning and regular upkeep) and to keep all the supplies on hand to accomplish these tasks. At Alsco, we can help you maintain all the cleaning products you need, topping off cleaning products as needed; supplying bathrooms with hand soap and paper towels; and making sure that there are enough gloves, cleaning cloths, and other supplies on hand at all times. 

Rather than buying in bulk or trying to keep up with yet another supply and ordering process, let Alsco take this task off your to-do list and make your schedule more efficient. Call now to set up an appointment to determine how Alsco can best serve you and your business. 


Understanding the Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing & Sterilizing. (August 2017). Canadian Institute of Food Safety.

Cleaning, Disinfecting, and Sanitizing. MedlinePlus.

The Difference Between Disinfecting and Sterilizing. (February 2021). Healthline.

State Retail and Food Service Codes and Regulations by State. (June 2020). U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Best Practices for Environmental Cleaning in Healthcare Facilities: in Resource-Limited Settings. (2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility. (November 2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Disinfection and Sterilization. (May 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sterilization and Disinfection. (March 2017). Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection.

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