What is the Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting?

Reading Time: 6 minutes Ice Machine Cleaning, Ice Safety

Difference between cleaning and sanitizing

Understanding the difference between cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing is vital if you want to effectively remove many diseases like E. coli or coronavirus. Whether you own a restaurant ice machine,  hospital ice maker or any other commercial ice machine, eliminating contaminants is key to ensuring the safety of your customers and employees.

In this article, we’ll discuss the different processes involved with cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing, as well as the best solutions to use. All three work together to help reduce the spread of infectious diseases. However, not all surfaces require all three methods. We’re here to share the best practices to keep your employees and customers safe.

What Exactly is Cleaning?

The term “cleaning” is used a lot in everyday conversation. It can be confused with other terms like washing, disinfecting, or sanitizing. However, the CDC has a very specific definition for cleaning:

Cleaning is a process that “removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces or objects.” The process involves using soap or detergent to physically remove dirt, grime, or germs from a surface.

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Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean that it kills microscopic germs like bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi. It merely removes them to reduce the chances of spreading infection. The effectiveness of this process is very much dependent on how long and how thorough someone is as they clean.

What is Disinfecting?

Disinfecting is the process of killing unwanted germs using a chemical disinfecting agent. Keep in mind, while disinfecting may kill germs from a surface, it doesn’t necessarily clean the surface of dirt or grime.

There are many EPA-approved disinfecting agents on the market. Certain microorganisms, whether they are bacteria, viruses, fungi, or protozoa, react differently to certain products. Some agents are more effective on certain microorganisms than others. In addition, some agents require more contact time to fully kill off the targeted microorganism. Manufacturers often label the amount of solution and the contact time their agents need to fully disinfect against specific germs, so make sure to follow the manufacturers’ recommendations.

Certain surfaces, like food contact surfaces, must be rinsed thoroughly after disinfecting. Leaving a high concentration of disinfectant on the surface can be toxic, which is dangerous if you’re preparing or serving food on the surface. After rinsing a disinfected food contact surface with water, you’ll also want to sanitize with a food-grade solution mixed at EPA-approved concentration levels and allow it to dry.

Disinfecting is best done after cleaning a surface. Dirt and grime can insulate germs, leaving them to thrive underneath. Make sure to clean the area so the disinfecting agent has plenty of contact time to work.

What is Sanitizing?

Sanitizing a surface reduces the number of bacteria to levels that are considered safe by public health standards.

The process of sanitizing requires the use of an EPA-approved sanitizing solution or high-heat treatment. Just like disinfecting agents, there are many EPA-approved sanitizing products on the market. Some are more effective at sanitizing against certain germs than others. As always, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations to find the correct concentration rate and contact time to achieve the desired result.

When using a sanitizing agent, leave the solution on the surface to air dry. This gives the solution time to sanitize the surface. Once this is done, the area is considered “sanitary” until someone touches it with their hands or other unsanitary objects.

This process is especially important on food contact surfaces. A food contact surface is any surface where food is either prepared or served. This includes ovens, microwaves, cutting boards, and tabletops. Since the FDA considers ice a food, your ice machine and bin are also considered a food contact surface. This is why cleaning your ice bin, is so important. These areas must be free of germs, but also non-toxic.

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You do not rinse cleaners from the surface during sanitizing. Also, sanitizers must be mixed at EPA-approved concentration rates, so they will not do any bodily harm.

What is a Food-Grade Solution?

If you run a restaurant or bar that serves food, you’ll want to use a food-grade solution to clean, sanitize, or disinfect a food contact surface.

Many agencies, including the FDA and USDA, have a list of approved detergents and sanitizers that are safe to use on food contact surfaces.

It’s important to note that just because a cleaner is considered food-grade does not mean you can use it however you want. Cleaners need to be used according to federal and manufacturers’ guidelines. Sanitizing a food contact surface with a higher concentration than recommended is unsafe and thereby not “food safe” any longer. We’ve put together a great resource on ice machine cleaners here.

Cleaning vs Sanitizing vs Disinfecting: Which Should You Do?

You can do all three if you want, but to save time, money, and energy, the type of surface will dictate which process you use.

For instance, you don’t need to sanitize your ceilings, since customers and staff won’t likely touch those. Granted, if they are dirty, you’ll want to clean them.

Cleaning is recommended on all surfaces, especially considering that disinfecting and sanitizing are far less effective on soiled surfaces.

Disinfecting is important on surfaces that people will likely touch, but not eat from. These include chairs, tables, and toilets. You should also disinfect areas on appliances that are not food contact surfaces but do see a lot of use, like refrigerator handles.

Sanitizing is useful on any surface that sees a lot of human contact, but especially on food grade surfaces. While you can sanitize in conjunction with cleaning and disinfecting, you always need to sanitize last. Since water is not sanitary, you would defeat the purpose of sanitizing if you rinsed the area.

How Do I Clean a Surface?

Cleaning is a process most people know. Use soap or detergent to wipe the area free of any dirt or grime. Afterward, rinse the area with clean water.

How Do I Disinfect a Surface?

To disinfect, apply an EPA-approved disinfectant to the surface you would like to disinfect. If the disinfectant you are using requires diluting with water, make sure to follow the manufacturer’s label to find the right concentration.

Next, allow the solution to sit on the surface for the duration recommended on the label. Contact times often range between 1 and 10 minutes.

Finally, make sure to rinse the area thoroughly with potable water.

How Do I Sanitize a Surface?

When sanitizing, apply the sanitizing product to the area you wish to sanitize. If your product requires diluting, follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for sanitizing to find the proper concentration.

Next, make sure the solution stays wet for the recommended time.

Finally, allow the mixture to air dry.

Don’t Forget Your Ice Machine

Keep in mind, disinfecting and sanitizing will rid a dirty ice machine of germs, but it does not protect your ice machine between cleanings. Even if you follow a strict ice machine cleaning schedule, a person can easily contaminate an area minutes later if they don’t practice proper food and ice handling techniques. While germs like Covid-19 won’t grow on ice, mishandled ice does carry germs – and it’s up to you and your staff to make sure that never happens. If you are not sure how to clean an ice machine, we’ve put together a guide for you.

For more information on ice machine disinfecting and sanitizing, see our Hoshizaki ice machine cleaning and Manitowoc ice machine cleaning guides.

As the Co-Founder and COO of Easy Ice, John Mahlmeister has been working in the commercial ice machine industry since 2009. Co-headquartered in Phoenix, AZ and Marquette, MI, Easy Ice is the only national provider of full-service ice machine subscriptions in the industry. Since Easy Ice was founded, the number of ice machines under its management has grown to over 30,000 units across 47 states, with no signs of slowing down.

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