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July 17, 2020

What is the difference between cleaning and disinfecting?

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been repeatedly told to disinfect common surfaces. What many do not know is that, if used incorrectly, a disinfectant may not do its job properly, potentially leaving active germs on the surface! Learn the difference between cleaning and disinfecting and the mistake that may cause all your hard work to go to waste.

What is the difference between cleaning and disinfecting?

The first thing to understand is the difference between cleaning and disinfecting. Cleaning is the removal of germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces. Cleaning can leave a surface sparkling clean, but it doesn’t kill germs that may still be present.

Disinfecting, on the other hand, refers to the use of chemicals to kill germs on surfaces, helping prevent the spread of infections. Most disinfectants can be used to both clean and disinfect but, if a surface is visibly dirty, it’s best to remove excess dirt first with soap and water.

Health Canada has published a list of hard-surface disinfectants that can be used against COVID-19. You can use one of these ready-made products or make your own bleach solution. Add 5 ml (1 teaspoon) of 5% bleach in 250 mL (a cup) of water, or add 4 teaspoons of 5% bleach in 1 litre (4 cups) of water (if bleach concentration is different, follow the manufacturer's instructions).

Other tips for disinfecting:

  • Diluted bleach solutions are only effective for up to 24 hours, so prepare the solution just before use.
  • Dilute bleach in room temperature water and never mix with any other cleaner. Place diluted solution in a container that cannot be misinterpreted as drinkable content, and store away from children and pets.
  • Wear disposable gloves to protect your skin and eye protection for potential splash hazards.
  • Use bleach in a well-ventilated area.
  • Bleaches designed for coloured clothing are not suitable for disinfection.

How to disinfect a surface properly

A common mistake is not allowing enough contact time to kill the virus. Disinfectants need time to kill germs. If you apply the product and swipe it off immediately, you will have a clean surface but most germs will still be active.  

To make sure all germs are killed, you have to apply enough product (the surface should look wet) and wait 15 seconds to 1 minute before wiping it off, depending on the active ingredient. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. 

How to prevent the spread of a virus when extra precautions are needed

If someone in your household has contracted COVID-19 (or another viral illness such as stomach flu), the following guidelines will help prevent the spread of the virus: 

  • Regularly disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, faucets, etc. 
  • Shared spaces such as kitchens and bathrooms should be cleaned more often. If possible, infected persons should isolate from other household members and be in charge of cleaning their own rooms, to minimize the risk of spreading the infection. If a child is sick, one parent should take care of the sick child while the other takes care of the rest of the household, including preparing meals. 
  • Dirty laundry from a person who is sick can be washed with other people’s items. Wear disposable gloves when handling laundry from a person who is sick, and don’t shake the items, as this could release the virus into the air. Wash your hands after discarding disposable gloves. 

Tips on disinfectants and cleaners

Remember that disinfectants can be used to clean a surface but cleaners cannot disinfect. Never use these products on your skin or internally, as this could cause serious harm. If you need help choosing an appropriate cleaning agent or disinfectant, consult your pharmacist. 

Services in pharmacy are the sole responsibility of pharmacist-owners. Only pharmacists are responsible for pharmacy practice. They only provide related services acting under a pharmacist-owner's name.

The Website deals with health-related topics. The information presented has been validated by experts and is accurate at the time of posting. In no way does it replace the opinion of a health care professional. Uniprix Inc. and its affiliated pharmacists accept no liability whatsoever in connection with the information provided on this Website.