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Cleaning vs. Disinfecting vs Sanitizing: What’s The Difference?

Note: As states reopen workplaces and schools during the novel coronavirus pandemic, we know sanitizing and disinfecting are top of mind. There can be a lot of conflicting information out there, so make sure to use reputable sources like the Center for Disease Control and the EPA. Force of Nature is a federal EPA-registered disinfectant that kills 99.9% of viruses and bacteria and is EPA approved for use against SARS-CoV-2. We’re here to help – if you have questions, get in touch or find more information on our Coronavirus Resources Page.

Parents out there who thought they were neurotic about cleanliness before are experiencing a whole new level of vigilance thanks to COVID-19. Every school year, we’re exposed to sickness-causing germs, viruses, and bacteria thanks to our cute little germ vectors – er, children! This year, however, is very different due to the severity of the symptoms of COVID-19, so we’re all understandably trying to determine how best to protect ourselves.

But, how do you know when you should be cleaning, disinfecting or sanitizing – or what those terms even mean in the first place? We’re here to help break it down and, of course, provide a family-friendly federal EPA-registered disinfectant that kills 99.9% of germs, too!

Cleaning, Disinfecting & Sanitizing Explained

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provide clear distinctions between these actions.

Cleaning is the first line of defense against germs and works by physically removing debris that would otherwise allow germs to spread and potentially lead to infection. You use water and detergent, like soap, to wash away the germs.

Disinfecting uses a chemical to kill 99.9% of germs on surfaces and in order to be considered a disinfectant, the product must be registered with the EPA. The EPA’s process ensures that a disinfectant kills 99.9% of the microbes it says it does within a specific “dwell time.” The dwell time is commonly 10 minutes, which is the time manufacturers use as part of the testing protocol that is central to the EPA’s registration process. That doesn’t mean that it takes 10 minutes to kill 99.9% of every germ that exists, but it means the disinfectant is proven effective at the 99.9% level across all the microbes tested within that time. The 10 minute dwell time is common because pathogen kill times and surfaces can vary so much. Products using antimicrobial ingredients like quats (quaternary ammonium compounds), sodium hypochlorite (bleach) depending in the concentration and thymol all commonly use 10 minute dwell times, but not always, so make sure to read your labels. Disinfectants should be used after cleaning physical debris and residue away from the surface so that they can come into contact with 100% of the surface. That’s why you often see a “pre-clean” step on disinfectant labels.

Sanitizing reduces the germs on a surface to the number that’s considered safe or acceptable by public health standards. To lower the risk of infection, you can sanitize an object or surface by cleaning the surface first of any residue, spraying it thoroughly, and then waiting the proper dwell time which will be listed on the product’s label. Yes, there is a dwell time for sanitizers too! Because a sanitizer does not have to kill 99.9% of germs, the requirement for sanitizing is not as strict as that for disinfecting.

The EPA registers both sanitizers and disinfectants as antimicrobial pesticides, but they aren’t all on their List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2. In order to be approved, a product must meet specific EPA List N criteria, either having demonstrated efficacy against SARS-CoV-2, against a different human coronavirus similar to SARS-CoV-2, or against select pathogens that are harder to kill than SARS-CoV-2 such as Norovirus.

When Should You Use Which?

“High touch” surfaces should be both cleaned and disinfected often as they can harbor germs and bacteria that could lead to infection.

  • Doorknobs
  • Faucet handles
  • Shared technology
  • Hands-on learning materials
  • Bathrooms

Why Would You Not Always Clean & Disinfect?

This pandemic is an extreme situation and, until now, most commonplace sicknesses were held at bay with standard cleaning and disinfecting practices. Many new disinfectant practices like fumigating or frequently using strong chemicals on walls and surfaces can have a downside, as they can irritate our eyes, skin and respiratory systems, aggravate asthma and allergies and cause other serious side effects. For example, 40% of US children have asthma or allergies, and 1 in 7 adults has asthma, so for them, conventional disinfectant chemicals can have a profound health impact. Force of Nature is free from allergens, earns Mayo Clinic’s top skin safety rating, and is gentle to use around those with allergies and asthma. And there may still be instances where you only need to clean vs disinfect. For example, if you’re trying to clean your windows, or clean up a sticky jam mess or art project that your kids have blessed your kitchen with.

How To Properly (And Effectively) Clean & Disinfect For COVID-19

The EPA recommends the following 6 Steps For Effective Disinfectant Use, which include:

  1. Check the EPA website 
    Ensure that your product is EPA-approved to kill SARS-Cov-2.
  2. Follow the product’s instructions
    This may sound obvious, but some disinfectants are formulated for specific surfaces or uses, so that’s why you want to ensure you’re using the right one for the job.
  3. Pre-clean the surface
    Remember, you want to wipe away anything that can prevent the disinfectant from coming into contact with 100% of the surface. You can use Force of Nature and a clean cloth or paper towel to clean your surfaces of dirt and residues.
  4. Spray the surface until it’s thoroughly wet. A slight misting isn’t enough to ensure the whole surface has been treated with the disinfectant.
  5. Follow the contact time 
    As you now know, disinfectants have to be given enough time to work to their promised effectiveness.
  6. Wear gloves and wash your hands after using Unless you’re using Force of Nature, in which case you don’t need to use gloves or wash your hands after disinfecting because it has no skin allergens or irritants.
  7. Keep it safe. 
    Always read the product’s Safety Data Sheet so that you understand the health hazards of the product you’re using and know how to handle and store it properly. Manufacturers don’t always make it easy to find these, but it’s worth the extra effort to find them online.

What’s Different About Force of Nature As A Disinfectant

Force of Nature is an EPA-registered disinfectant* that meets the standards of inclusion on the EPA’s List N, the products approved for use against SARS-CoV-2. It has no toxic chemicals, residues or fumes, no allergens or irritants. While Force of Nature kills 99.9% of germs, the anti-microbial ingredient is the substance made by your own immune system to fight off infection and is gentle enough to use around kids and pets. You don’t need to wear gloves while using Force of Nature as it contains none of the harsh irritants in conventional cleaning products. Learn more about our revolutionary cleaning and disinfecting product.

*EPA registration info here.
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