To clean or not to clean isn't the question. The question is: to clean or disinfect? Knowing the difference between cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing is key to winning the war on germs. Here's an explanation:

Cleaning removes germs and involves using soap (or a detergent) and water to physically take them off of surfaces.

Disinfecting kills germs with chemicals or cleaning agents (other than soap) which are necessary to destroy or inactivate them. Disinfecting does not remove dirt or dust, so you should always clean surfaces before disinfecting them.

Sanitizing reduces the number of germs on surfaces to a level deemed safe according to public health standards. Places like school buildings, hospitals and public restrooms are sanitized regularly to lower the risk of spreading germs and viruses. Cleaning or disinfecting is part of the sanitizing process.

In many cases, cleaning surfaces with soap and water is sufficient. Using a disinfectant to clean is not a good idea as it doesn't complete the job. For disinfectants to work, it's necessary to first moisten the area with the disinfectant and leave it in place for several minutes. Only then will all the germs be rendered unable to reproduce. If you're wiping and cleaning up quickly with a disinfectant, you aren't killing all of the germs. One other important point: When you clean, be sure to use fresh rags and/or sponges otherwise you are doing little more than moving germs from one surface to another.

When More Than Soap and Water Is Necessary

The most germ-laden places—and those you should be more inclined to disinfect—include:

  • Telephone mouthpieces and receivers
  • Kitchen appliance handles
  • Kitchen and bath counters, faucets, and sinks
  • Light switches
  • Computer keyboards
  • Remote controls
  • Handheld games
  • Door knobs

Surprisingly, toilets do not make this list. Considering where smart phones and cell phones go—in and out of your handbag, to restaurants and restrooms, etc—they are also especially grimy. But liquids and cell phones don't mix. Fortunately, there are specially-designed cleaning cloths and wireless wipes made for this purpose. Look for products at office supply stores.

Your best bet when it comes to cleaning and disinfecting is to use simple, natural products, many of which you may already have on hand. According to tests conducted at Virginia Tech University, plain white or apple cider vinegar and three percent hydrogen peroxide mists in spray bottles killed virtually all Salmonella, Shigella, and E. coli bacteria on heavily contaminated food and surfaces more effectively than chlorine bleach or commercial kitchen cleaners. The researchers got the best results when they used one mist right after the other (the order doesn't matter). This process was 10 times more effective than either mist alone or when the testers mixed both liquids together.

Are antibacterial cleaners necessary? Unfortunately, they generally overpromise and under deliver. According to the American Medical Association, there is no data to support the efficacy of antibacterial cleaners or the need for them and, in fact, they may be causing more harm than good by creating antibiotic resistant microbes.

The Environmental Working Group also urges consumers to be skeptical of "green" claims on cleaners. Some manufacturers tout their cleaners as green, nontoxic, or biodegradable, even though the primary cleaning agent (for example, 2-butoxyethanol) may be harmful to humans.

Liesa Harte, MD, reviewed this article.



Water Quality and Health Council
"Cleaning vs. Disinfecting: What's the Difference?" Joan B. Rose, PhD. 12 April 2013.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
"Environmental Cleaning & Disinfecting for MRSA." 9 August 2010.

Environmental Working Group. "Be Skeptical of Greenwashing Claims " 3 November 2009.

"Nurses' Health and Workplace Exposures to Hazardous Substances"  11 December 2007.

"Spring Cleaning: EWG's Tips on What to Use-and What to Avoid" 25 March 2013.

Judy Stouffer, BS, MS, SFO. "Vinegar and Hydrogen Peroxide as Disinfectants" 21 July 2001.

American Medical Association. 18 June 2013.