The COVID-19 pandemic has brought attention to the importance of environmental sanitation, leading to widespread use of terms such as “disinfection” and “sanitization” in everyday language. However, these terms are not always well understood. National and European regulations provide clarity on the definitions and different types of interventions, helping consumers choose the right product or treatment for their specific needs. Therefore, what is the difference between cleaning, disinfection, and sanitization? 

This article aims to explain all differences. 

Cleaning, disinfection, and sanitization: the definitions 

Recently, the spread of the Sars-Cov-2 virus has meant that terms such as sanitation, environmental sterilization, disinfection, and sanitization have become of daily and common use even among non-experts. Therefore, it would seem that along with their use, awareness of their meaning has also grown; yet the opposite is often the case in reality. In fact, consumers are not always adequately informed about the treatment they are implementing.  

In this article we will clarify the meaning of disinfection, sterilization, and cleaning to help our readers choose the most appropriate products for each situation. 

First, let’s clarify the definitions. 

According to the D.M. 7 July 1997, no. 274 of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, reported in the COVID-19 Report n. 25/2020 and promulgated by the Institute Superior of Healthcare, when we talk about sanitization we mean “the complex of procedures and operations aimed at making certain environments healthy through the activity of cleaning and/or disinfection and/or disinfestation” and by maintaining the microclimate in terms of aspects such as temperature, humidity and air exchange. 

Be careful not to confuse sanitation with sanitization. 

The latter defines more specifically “the complex of procedures and operations aimed at reducing the microbial load of an environment, surface, utensil, etc.,” which must be carried out using disinfectant products authorized by the Ministry of Health. These products must bear on the label the registration/authorization number obtained on the basis of scientific evidence and specific efficacy tests. 

Sterilization – in medicine, biology and in the food and pharmaceutical industry – is a physical or chemical process which leads to the targeted destruction of every living microbial form, both in vegetative and spore form. It can be performed on objects or substances of various types. 

Finally, environmental sanitation is the equivalent of cleaning and “consists in the removal of dirt and the microorganisms present therein, with a consequent reduction in the microbial load”. 

It is therefore important not to confuse the cleaning product (or sanitizer) and the disinfectant, because while the former simply has the purpose of removing dirt and any encrustations, the latter acts on a whole series of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, viruses. 

However, this does not mean that sanitization is less important than other procedures: sanitization is still a mandatory step before disinfection and sterilization, because dirt can reduce the activity of disinfectants.  

Disinfectants and sterilizers against pathogenic microorganisms 

Having clarified the terminological differences between the sanitization activities, let’s see how they are carried out, focusing in particular on the products to be used to obtain the three different results: disinfect, sterilize, and clean. 

The disinfectant destroys most pathogenic microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, viruses) by physical or chemical means. Products of this type fall within separate regulatory processes: that of Medical-Surgical Devices (PMC), that of biocides and that of medical devices. 

The main types of disinfectants are based on: 

  • ethyl alcohol;
  • sodium hypochlorite, also known as bleach, clorox, liquid bleach or chlorine;
  • hydrogen peroxide, also known as hydrogen peroxide;
  • quaternary ammonium compounds (QUATs), e.g., didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride – DDAC, alkyl dimethylbenzylammonium chloride, ADBAC.

The factors that influence the action of disinfectants can be internal to the product, such as the concentration, the stability of the preparation and the contact time, or external, for example the temperature, the pH, and other characteristics of the material to be treated or, again, the characteristics and extent of the microbial flora. 

Commercial products are also accompanied by disinfectants with so-called “in situ generation” systems of the active ingredient. 

One of the active ingredients thus generated is active chlorine, obtained by electrolysis from sodium chloride, whose “biocidal” effect is given by the balance of hypochlorous acid, chlorine gas and sodium hypochlorite, in concentrations that vary with pH and temperature. Like active chlorine, ozone, obtained from oxygen, is also being evaluated as a biocide. 

Another system is represented by the treatment with low wavelength UV rays (220 nm) and with the vaporization/aerosolization of hydrogen peroxide. 

Disinfection does not guarantee the degree of safety associated with sterilization processes. In fact, the sterilizing product performs a more powerful action than the disinfectant, aiming at the total destruction of microorganisms, including a significant number of resistant bacterial spores. 

Sterilants can also act by physical (filtration, heat, radiation) or chemical means. 

An example of a liquid chemical sterilant is the product based on ethylene oxide, used above all to sterilize surgical instruments, operating theaters, and containers for medicines and/or food.  

Are cleaners and disinfectants the same thing? 

Finally, we come to the cleaning product. The National Chemical Substances Center of the ISS defines detergent as “any substance or mixture containing soaps and/or other surfactants, intended for washing and cleaning activities”. In the context of sanitizing environments, this type of product therefore includes preparations intended for general household cleaning products and/or other cleaning products for surfaces. 

The surfactants (or complementary substances) in these products are so called because they act to decrease the forces that hold dirt “together” (surface tensions), increasing instead those of attraction between the dirt and the washing bath to which they are subjected. 

Detergents are divided into soaps (natural surfactants) and synthetic detergents (synthetic surfactants).  

Detergents and disinfectants also differ because, while detergents are freely available for sale, disinfectants must go through a standardized authorization process at both national and European levels before they can be sold. This procedure is in place to safeguard human and animal health, as well as the environment. 

The main rules regarding the production and use of detergents are instead contained in Regulation (EC) No. 648/2004 of the European Parliament and aim to ensure the total biodegradability of all the surfactants used, define the data on the label to inform the consumer and define the information that producers must make available to the competent authorities, medical personnel, and the Member States. 

Knowing and being able to communicate the specifics of treatments and products to the consumer is key to promoting a proper culture of sanitization for the health and safety of all.  

AMIL Care, a leader in the sanitization market in different sectors, provides its experience and a certified working method to offer diverse and effective disinfection treatments that are tailored to your needs, innovative and compliant with official regulations. You can rely on us for any clarification on these issues and to learn more about our products.  

Disinfection in AMIL Care 

AMIL Care, as a leader in the culture of automated disinfection, makes its experience and certified methods available to ensure high standard levels of its treatments based on the needs of the various sectors.  

Our products are effective, innovative and in line with official regulations. 

Based on the gained experience, AMIL Care has understood that research and compliance with regulations must go hand in hand with technology to express themselves effectively. For this reason, the concept of diffusion of liquid substances has been redesigned from scratch according to recognized parameters. 

In times of great confusion and health crisis, it is essential to rely on those like AMIL Care, who give credit to science and support their products with certified efficacy studies.