Keeping your living space and common surfaces clean is important for your health. But this isn’t the same thing as disinfecting or sterilizing.
Disinfecting and sterilizing are both types of decontamination, a process that makes something safe to touch. The purpose is to kill enough germs so the risk of infection is extremely low.
Decontamination is different from cleaning, which can get rid of dust and dirt but may only remove some of the germs that are present.
Read on to learn more about the differences between disinfecting and sterilizing, and about some best practices for fighting COVID-19 and other harmful agents.
What it means to disinfect vs. sterilize
You may hear the terms “disinfect,” “sterilize,” and even “sanitize” used interchangeably, but these aren’t the same thing.
All of these methods are antimicrobial processes that aim to kill germs to some degree. But there are key differences to understand before choosing which mode of decontamination is best in your situation.
Overall, sterilization is the most advanced form of decontamination, but disinfecting and sterilizing both kill more germs than sanitizing.
The process of disinfecting removes harmful organisms from objects. This is usually done by applying chemical sprays or wipes.
One of the greatest advantages to disinfecting is the availability of products to the general public. It’s possible to find disinfectants in wipe, spray, or other liquid forms, and you can even make your own products at home.
Depending on the type of disinfectant used, the product may need to be left on surfaces for as little as 20 minutes or as long as 12 hoursTrusted Source.
What it kills
Disinfectants can kill most viruses and fungi, with the majority of commercial products also marketed as effective against the COVID-19 virus when used as directed.
While disinfectants can kill bacteria, they may not be able to treat bacterial spores, which lay dormant.
Sterilization, on the other hand, is a process typically used by professionals in settings such as hospitals.
While disinfecting gets rid of most germs, sterilization removes all microorganisms — including those that aren’t harmful. Sterilization is common in medical facilities, but it may also be helpful for businesses and schools that want to get rid of germs in entire rooms.
Methods of sterilization may include:
- pressurized steam (autoclaving)
- hydrogen peroxide gas
- ethylene oxide (EtO) gas
- ionizing radiation (typically used for medical equipment)
- dry heat cabinets (for medical instruments)
- infrared radiation
- advanced filtration
Due to potential dangers and intricacies, most sterilization methods are done by professionals only. Never attempt these methods on your own or allow an untrained professional to do so.
Sanitizing is another method of removing dirt and killing germs that’s often confused with sterilizing.
While sterilization gets rid of all germs, sanitizing aims to lower the amount to a safe level. The process of sanitizing can involve both cleaning and disinfecting.
It’s also worth mentioning that while hand sanitizers may not eliminate all germs, they’re good to have on-hand until you have access to warm water and soap to properly wash your hands.
Best practices for disinfecting
While sterilization is typically done by professionals, you can properly disinfect items and common surfaces yourself at home or in your workplace.
Here are some tips for safely disinfecting:
Make sure your product is an actual disinfectant. The manufacturer will indicate such usage on their product labels.
Beware of “natural” products claiming to kill germs. While natural wipes and sprays may be useful for cleaning, they don’t have the germ-eliminating capabilities that chemical disinfectants do.
Learn what the product is designed to kill. Read your disinfectant’s label to find out what kinds of bacteria, fungi, and viruses the product can get rid of. This is especially important if you’re trying to fight coronaviruses like COVID-19.
Let the disinfectant stay on surfaces for the right amount of time. Follow the product’s instructions on the label regarding how long it should sit for. Don’t wipe or wash the disinfectant away unless the instructions say so.
Wear gloves. Handling these products could cause irritation to the skin, and contact should be avoided.
Don’t combine chemicals. This is especially true of hydrogen peroxide and bleach.
Safely store your disinfectant products. Put lids and caps back on tightly, and keep all products out of reach of children. Store disinfectants in a cool, dry place, such as a cabinet, and discard them if they’re expired.
Use the disinfectant in a well-ventilated area. This is especially important to do if the product contains bleach.
Protecting against COVID-19
Washing your hands frequently, wearing face masks in public, and avoiding close contact with others outside of your household are all important methods of containing the spread of COVID-19.
But it’s also important that you clean and disinfect or sterilize shared surfaces.
Some common areas to disinfect in order to protect against COVID-19 include:
- kitchen counters
- stair railings
- light switches
- changing tables
- The importance of cleaning
- While cleaning itself doesn’t kill all germs, this can be an important first step before disinfecting or sterilizing.
Cleaning physically removes dirt and some germs first, clearing the way for disinfectants to work more effectively. You may also conduct both processes at the same time. An example of this would be mopping the floor, but using a disinfectant in the bucket.
Regular cleaning is an important way to keep you and your family healthy. But to effectively kill harmful microorganisms such as COVID-19, you’ll also need to disinfect common surfaces.
Disinfecting kills most harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Sterilizing may be more appropriate for larger commercial settings and medical facilities because it’s guaranteed to get rid of all microorganisms.
Proper sterilizing methods are always done by professionals. But you can disinfect surfaces on your own at home and in your workplace. Carefully follow all product directions, and avoid mixing chemicals or using them in nonventilated areas.
Medically reviewed by Dominique Fontaine, BSN, RN, HNB-BC, HWNC
Written by Kristeen Cherney
February 26, 2021
Photo Credit: Heather Ford via Unsplash
Last medically reviewed on February 26, 2021
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