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Difference Between Disinfectant & Sanitizer

Updated July 20, 2017

To thoroughly clean your house, you must remove pathogens from surfaces. Commonly called germs, pathogens are disease-causing microorganisms like viruses and harmful bacteria. Getting rid of pathogens typically calls for cleaning products containing chlorine bleach, hydrogen peroxide or another agent proven to destroy germs. Germicides for household use are either disinfectants or sanitisers. Though often used interchangeably, a disinfectant is not the same as a sanitiser; in fact, each has a legal definition.

Sanitisers

Both sanitisers and disinfectants work by chemically destroying a microorganism's structures, making it incapable of reproduction. Sanitisers do not necessarily kill all pathogens. They must kill 99.999 per cent of microorganisms within 30 seconds using a standardised test set out by the Environmental Protection Agency. Although public health departments accept 99.999 per cent for commercial food-preparation surfaces, it's possible that some pathogens will survive sanitation.

Disinfectants

A disinfectant destroys 99.999 per cent of microorganisms, including certain pathogens listed by the Association of Analytical Communities (AOAC) test methods. These include disease-carrying strains of salmonella and staph bacteria. Disinfectants must kill all specified pathogens within 10 minutes. It's possible that sanitisers may also kill these pathogens, but they aren't subject to the same testing as disinfectants. Health-care organisations with high concentrations of pathogens, such as clinics and hospitals, tend to use disinfectants, whereas sanitisers are more common to restaurants and households.

How to Choose

If you're cleaning something that has a high chance of carrying pathogens, like a pair of shoes after a hospital visit, use a disinfectant. However, think twice before using that same product on a place mat, for example. Take care to use common sense and read all labels carefully. While you don't want to get sick from pathogens, you also don't want to risk ingesting poisons. Remember that sanitisers remove 99.999 per cent of microorganisms, considered a "safe level" even for food preparation.

Moderation

While it is unquestionably important to avoid viruses and disease-causing bacteria, it is impossible -- and undesirable -- to destroy all bacteria. At any given time, millions of bacteria live on your skin. This normal "skin flora" serves many functions, including protecting you from pathogens. When sanitising or disinfecting, you remove the good along with the bad bacteria. While it's good to maintain a clean house, beneficial bacteria should be a part of it.

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About the Author

Cindy Ying has been freelance writing since 2005, her work appearing in "TIME for Students" and "ABC Magazine" in Taiwan. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Western Ontario. Ying is also a practicing nurse and currently resides in British Columbia.