Health & Wellness Articles

How to Safely Disinfect Your Home

What You Don't Know about Killing Germs

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Worried about catching the cold or flu this year—or helping to keep the germs of one sick family member from infecting others in your house?

Beyond hand washing and self-imposed quarantine, some time spent cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing high-traffic areas can ensure your home sweet home stays healthy, too. But what you think you know about killing germs—and what actually works—may surprise you.

Though the terms are used interchangeably, cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing are three completely different things. Some household products can perform double or triple duty. In some cases and on some surfaces, cleaning alone is enough to prevent illness; but disinfecting and sanitizing act like an insurance policy to further rid your home of germs.

Here's what the three terms really mean:

Cleaning Disinfecting Sanitizing

Physically removes germs from surfaces but doesn't kill them

Uses soap or detergent and water plus friction to remove germs

Should be done before disinfecting and/or sanitizing

Kills all germs on surfaces within 10 minutes

Doesn't remove germs or clean dirty surfaces

Should be done after cleaning

In public settings, such as schools and hospitals, it's more important to disinfect than to sanitize

Kills 99.999% of germs on a surface within 30 seconds

Either cleans or disinfects surfaces or objects, depending on the products used

Some products can do all three, depending on the time left on a surface
Cleaning Products Disinfecting Products Sanitizing Products

Baking soda




Chlorine (bleach)

Pine oil* (Pine-sol)

Phenolic (Lysol)

Vinegar (10% acidity)


Chlorine (1 teaspoon diluted in 1 quart water)

Phenolic (Lysol)

Quaternary ammonium (found in many all-purpose cleaners)

Alcohol (at least 60%)

* Pine oil is toxic to cats.
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About The Author

Stepfanie Romine Stepfanie Romine
A former newspaper reporter, Stepfanie now writes about nutrition, health, fitness and cooking. She is a certified Ashtanga yoga teacher who enjoys running, international travel and all kinds of vegetables. See all of Stepfanie's articles.

Member Comments

  • Your definition of sanitizing is incorrect. Sanitizing is the same as cleaning, with detergent or other cleaning solution, removes visible dirt and debris.
    Disinfecting, by means of chemicals or boiling, kills MOST microbes within 10 minutes. Sterilization, by means of auto-clave, kills 99.999% of microbes. - 4/11/2015 12:41:22 AM
  • As a former food service grunt, I say brava to the lesson on the differences between cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing~ - 11/12/2014 6:19:46 AM
  • CARROL63
    Thank you I'll write more later the library is kicking me out. - 9/19/2014 9:48:09 PM
    Thanks so much for this article. I am very conscious of not using disinfectants that are too strong, so learning what to clean helps me a lot. - 5/1/2014 8:13:52 AM
  • I agree with Lola. This was an excellent article, and very useful. - 2/16/2014 1:09:50 PM
    Stepfanie, thumbs up and a big pat on the back for a truly well-researched, highly useful (especially right now, at the height of flu season) article! Have been using baking soda and vinegar in the kitchen for a long time because I really don't want chemicals around - or especially in - our food, and so far, so good (knocking on wood)! - 1/26/2014 1:07:41 PM

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