As humans, we are in a constant battle against invisible enemies. Ever since scientists discovered the truth of “germ theory,” as it was initially titled, we have been attempting to find more effective ways to kill bacteria, viruses, pathogens, and other microorganisms before they can harm us.
As this constant battle has been waged over the past several centuries, we have refined our tactics by dividing our strategy into different parts, using different weapons to combat different elements of infection. This strategy can be described as “Sterilization vs disinfection vs sanitizing vs cleaning,” and in this blogpost we’ll help you understand where each tactic comes into play.
Moving from the mildest to the most destructive tactic, we begin with the concept of cleaning. In everyday conversation, the term “cleaning” is often used as an overarching category that encompasses all the different methods of eradicating pathogens. However, in a technical sense, cleaning refers to the removal of large particles from a surface or environment.
Large in this context, of course, is relative! While it obviously includes sweeping up food particles, dirt, and other materials, it also includes wiping up liquids and even dusting. A good rule of thumb is that if what you are removing is visible to the naked eye, the activity you’re carrying out is considered cleaning.
The primary reason for cleaning is not to kill pathogens themselves, but rather to eliminate the environments in which they can live and propagate. A dirty environment full of “large” waste particles is an ideal place for colonies of bacteria and viruses to thrive.
A sanitizing agent isn’t meant to remove large particles, but rather targets bacteria. You can’t see bacteria, but a sanitizer attacks bacteria cells and kills them so that they will not have a chance to invade the bodies of the humans (and/or animals) that are in the environment. Using hand sanitizer is a great example of this strategy–as we pick up bacteria throughout the day on our hands by touching all sorts of surfaces out in public, it is a good idea to apply a sanitizer occasionally in order to kill whatever harmful bacteria might be trying to take up residence on our skin.
The main difference between a sanitizing and a disinfecting agent is the fact that disinfectants kill both bacteria and viruses. Bacteria and viruses are very different types of microorganisms, and a disinfectant is powerful enough and has the right chemical compounds to kill both. While using a disinfectant on a regular basis is a fantastic way to protect the home, commercial settings, public spaces, and other environments from a wide range of pathogens, some disinfectants can carry hazards of their own. If a disinfectant contains toxic chemicals, extreme care must be exercised while using and even storing it in order to avoid poisoning humans through direct contact.
While it may seem intuitive that the most powerful pathogen-killing strategy is the best, the situation is more complicated than that. The process of sterilization kills nearly all microorganisms, but is only used in specific contexts–in packaging food products, pharmaceutical production, and preparing instruments for medical procedures, for instance.
Even in hospital rooms, food preparation areas, and other environments that require stringent pathogen eradication, sterilization is generally the wrong approach. The truth is, as humans we not only fight “bad” bacteria, but we also depend on “good” bacteria to coexist with us and keep us healthy. Sterilization can kill these good bacteria as well, leaving our health systems unbalanced and vulnerable.
Sterilization vs Disinfection vs Sanitizing vs Cleaning
So, which one should you use in your specific context? The answer will probably include multiple strategies. Using only sanitizer and disinfectant without ever cleaning up large particles, for instance, will kill bacteria and viruses initially but will leave the environments intact for them to return and propagate again.
It’s also important to look for disinfectant and sanitizers that are low in toxicity, do not produce airborne contaminants like VOCs that can jeopardize the human respiratory system, yet still do a thorough job of killing pathogens in a wide range of categories. PCT’s solutions check all of these boxes and are a great addition to a commercial, institutional, agricultural, or residential slate of infection control strategies.