What is the Difference Between Cleaning and Disinfecting?


Cleaning staff sanitising and disinfecting a ‘high touch surface’ door handle

It took a pandemic for the general public to take an interest in how clean and safe their surroundings are. Before COVID-19 few people gave a second thought to the difference between cleaning and disinfecting. But when the health of your colleagues, family and friends is at stake, effective cleaning has become a popular topic of conversation in workplaces worldwide. 

What is Cleaning?

The definition of cleaning is when a detergent is used to physically remove germs, dirt and grime from a surface. Any type of detergent may be used as they’re all a surfactant designed to break up oil and grease.

What is Disinfecting?

According to the Therapeutics Goods Administration disinfectant means a substance that is recommended by its manufacturer for application to an inanimate object to kill microorganisms, and is not represented by the manufacturer to be suitable for internal use. 

Products containing effective chemicals will be labelled as a ‘disinfectant’ on the packaging. Disinfectants’ active ingredient may be alcohol in a concentration of a minimum 70%, chlorine bleach in a concentration of 1000 parts per million or quaternary ammonium compounds.

The Chlor-Clean disinfectant delivers 1000ppm of available Chlorine per tablet and is listed as a hospital grade disinfectant so it’s suitable for use in all settings. Chlor-Clean is listed with the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) – ARTG 348450 for use against COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2 the cause of COVID-19). The TGA is imposing harsh penalties for products that claim to be an effective disinfectant against COVID-19 without being substantiated.  

Why Not Just Disinfect?

Most people assume cleaning is primarily for cosmetic purposes. No one likes a dusty work surface or touching a sticky door handle but it has a higher purpose. Disinfecting can only occur after cleaning because any dirt or grime on a surface reduces the effectiveness of a disinfectant to kill pathogens.

Without a proper sanitation procedure, viruses such as COVID-19 may not be killed if the surface was dirty before the disinfectant was applied. The only exception to the rule is when an approved 2-in-1 clean and disinfection product is used.

Cleaning Procedures

To clean effectively ensures all dirt, grime and some germs are removed from the surface. The following cleaning procedures should be followed:

  • Start with the cleanest surface and move to the dirtiest surface

  • Wipe the surface with a detergent product and water

  • Ensure all dirt and grime is removed from the surface, repeat if necessary

  • Dry the surface or ensure it’s not too wet that it can’t dry rapidly

Disinfecting Procedures

Knowing the difference between cleaning and disinfecting is important. Effective disinfection kills all pathogens from a surface. Complete the following procedures:

  • Ensure the surface you are disinfecting has been recently cleaned and is completely dry

  • Apply with a product labelled ‘disinfectant’ and read the instructions

  • Allow the disinfectant product to pool on hard surfaces for ten minutes (unless the instructions say different)

  • Remove the product using a clean cloth

  • Dispose or launder cleaning cloths with a detergent

  • Allow the cloth to dry before storing or reusing 

Which Surfaces Need Cleaning & Disinfecting?

Pathogens can land on a surface through bodily fluids, airborne particles, contact with faeces, and touch by an infected person. Some pathogens survive for longer than others and different surfaces are higher risk than others. The four most common types of pathogens are viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites. 

The term ‘high touch surfaces’ has become a well-known term since the pandemic began. Workplace contractors, cleaners and homeowners are urged to clean and disinfect any object that is touched regularly by multiple people. For example, door handles, touch screens, lift buttons, trolley handles, self-serve screens, EFTPOS machines and even cash are considered high touch surfaces.

The risk of contracting a virus or bacterial infection from these surfaces is greater than others because multiple people touch them regularly. In organisations where only a few people visit, a surface may only need to be cleaned and disinfected daily but in busy locations such as supermarkets, surfaces may need cleaning hourly or in some cases after every customer use to stop the spread of a virus. 

How can I protect myself and others when using disinfectants?

In some settings where harmful viruses or bacteria are present, cleaning staff may need to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Gloves and a mask act as a barrier to stop the virus entering the body during and after cleaning an infected surface. It’s also best to use eye protection if there’s a chance that the disinfectant product may splash into your face. Always wash your hands for 20 seconds after removing gloves.

The area being cleaned should have good ventilation while using disinfectant products so open a window or door, turn on the air conditioning or an extraction fan, if possible.

When you have finished, disposable products should be bagged and placed in the bin. Reusable cleaning products like cloths and detachable mop fibres should be laundered with a detergent and left to dry before reusing.   

If you have any queries about products for cleaning and disinfecting your workplace, call Helix Solutions on 1300 29 32 32 or contact us online.