We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and every health and government organisation is focusing on the importance of disinfection and sanitisation. However, do you actually know what those two terms mean and what is the difference between them? It is important to distinguish between these substances and know how properly to protect your workplace, home and body.

1. What Are Disinfectants?

Disinfectants are chemicals used to kill microorganisms, especially bacteria, on still surfaces like floors, furniture, walls, etc. They actively destroy the cell walls of microbes or interfere with their metabolism. Some types of disinfectants can also be used on the skin and body to decontaminate it. These chemical solutions have a 99% rate of exterminating germs and viruses and are widely used in the cleaning industry.

2. What Are Sanitisers?

Sanitisers are mild disinfectants that can both slow the growth of harmful germs and clean the surface on which they are applied. Chemically speaking, all sanitisers are disinfectants. However, they have additional ingredients to make them more accessible and less harmful to the human body. Think about hand sanitisers with added oils or detergents with different levels of fragrance.

As you will see from the two categories of disinfectants, we describe below, sanitisers are primarily non-oxidisable substances. Many different household detergents contain them – from fabric softener to soap.

3. What Are the Differences Between Disinfectants and Sanitisers?

It is important to note that when you clean your property, you usually sanitise it. As the solvent you would apply is not very strong and can be usually handled by hand. Disinfection is performed by certified companies that are allowed to work with strong solvents. In the following table, we have marked the most notable characteristics of both sanitising and disinfection.

Factor Disinfectant Sanitiser
Cleaning power ➤ Can not remove dirt or stains ➤ Can be used for cleaning purposes
Decontaminating capabilities ➤ High ➤ Mild
Effects ➤ Destroy the pathogen’s cells ➤ Modify and “disarm” the pathogens
Reaction time For some types, it may take up to 10 minutes ➤ Almost immediately
Used in/on ➤ Facilities with high germ density like hospitals, dental surgeries, factories, kitchens and bathrooms. ➤Skin, objects that are frequently in contact with the skin
Recommendations ➤Wear protection  when using
➤Rely on professionals when you need to disinfect a larger surface or property
➤ Do not overuse hand sanitiser as it can irritate your skin
➤ Do not use for decontamination

Both sanitisers and disinfectants have their strong and weak points, and when properly used they could protect your living and working environment.

4. Do You Disinfect or Do You Sanitise Your Home?

We, as cleaning experts, have to deal with a lot of different properties, and when it comes to private residences, we advise you to rely on sanitisers, not on disinfectants. Altho the latter will exterminate most of the germs, the chemicals used in this process can be harmful both to humans and animals. A good solution to keep your house germ-free is to get your home professionally taken care of at least once every two weeks. During the pandemic, this is especially important, as regular cleaning products are weaker when it comes to sanitisation.
As for the disinfection – if it is necessary, try to leave the home while the process is taking place to avoid inhaling the harmful substances. Make sure to ventilate the air at the residence before coming back.

5. How to Choose the Right Disinfectant (Sanitiser)?

You have to ask yourself a couple of questions to determine what kind of chemical cleaners you need.

5.1 Do you need it for your home, office or a larger facility like a factory or a medical centre?

It depends on the level of contamination. Usually, homes and offices are sanitised due to the large number of people and the mild pathogen danger. Factories, medical facilities, food-processing plants and the like are subjected to thorough disinfection due to the high germ risk.

5.2 Do you need to remove both germs and dirt?

If the answer is yes, you need a sanitiser, so the most common surface cleaners will do the job. If your goal is to kill the germs without removing the stains, you can use a disinfectant.

5.3 Do you have to cleanse biological stains?

Think about puke, pet accidents or blood. These stains not only need to be removed, but the surface has to be sanitised in order to prevent the growth of bacteria. There are different kinds of cleaners depending on the type of stain.

5.4 Are there children and pets in close proximity to the surface you need to take care of?

Most disinfectants are dangerous and need to be handled only by professional cleaners. If you are doing everything yourself, it is best to rely on sanitising products rather than disinfecting ones.

5.5 Do you need to remove mould or other fungi?

disinfection procedure

You need to disinfect the surface properly, and for that to happen, a licenced professional must be hired. Mould can be dangerous and even toxic, so you need to take adequate precautions.

5.6 Do you need to perform decontamination in order to remove pathogens?

Oxidising disinfectants will perfectly do the job. Sanitisers are too mild and don’t possess the needed strength to effectively kill bacteria and viruses.

6. Types of Disinfectants

There are two main categories of disinfectants – oxidising and non-oxidising. Let’s check each one and see how they work and where is best to use them.

6.1 Oxidising Disinfectants

Oxidising disinfectants are chemical solutions that have the ability to dismember the molecules of the targeted microorganisms, thus effectively killing different bacteria and viruses.
There are several types of oxidising disinfectants you should know about:

  • Chlorine – Altho, chlorine was initially used in its gas form to fumigate hospitals, nowadays, this practice is long gone, as this chemical is highly toxic. However, when combined with other elements, it is an effective and strong disinfectant. Chlorine can be used in liquid or powder form.
  • Iodine – Iodine is most popular as a water-purifying agent. It can rapidly penetrate harmful microorganisms and destroy their nucleotides (DNA). It can be applied on wounds and is primarily used to decontaminate medical facilities.
  • Bromine – In its clear form, bromine is not used as a disinfectant as it is hard to handle. However, when used in combination with other elements, it can enhance their decontamination effects.
  • Oxygen-releasing materials – Peracetic acid and Hydrogen peroxide are the most commonly used compounds. They are strong disinfectants and have various advantages.

Disinfectant Pros Cons
Chlorine ➤ Very effective against viruses and bacteria
➤ Doesn’t leave a residue
➤ Not expensive
➤ Nonfoaming
➤ It’s not affected by water hardness
➤ Can be corrosive to other elements
➤ Irritates the eyes and skin ( you need to always wear protection)
➤ It can be a bit insatiable
➤ Can be toxic to living things
Iodine ➤ A very reactive element leading to its strong disinfecting qualities
➤ Dissolves easily in water
➤ Its vapours can irritate the eyes, which is why it is best used in combination with other elements.
➤ It may stain the surfaces it is used on
Bromine ➤ Can be used effectively in combination with chlorine ➤ Difficult to work with, partially unstable
➤ Can’t be used on its own
Peracetic acid ➤ It is biodegradable and dissolves easily in water
➤ Nonfoaming
➤ Effects a wide range of viruses and bacteria
➤ Widely used in the food industry for cleaning the interior surfaces of process pipes, vents, tanks, etc.
➤ Can be corrosive
➤ Has a smell similar to vinegar and is unpleasant to handle directly
Hydrogen peroxide ➤ Remove both bacteria and fungi
➤ Strong and effective
➤ It can irritate, so manual use is not recommended

6.2 Non-oxidising Disinfectants

Non-oxidising disinfectants are not as strong, thus they cant effectively destroy the pathogens. However, they can modify their structure and make them less harmful. These substances are used as sanitisers.
The commonly used non-oxidising disinfectants are:

  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) – These elements are quite dangerous for the environment, and on top of that, they are not as strong as oxidising disinfectants. Altho they are still used in some form in many solvents, we advise you to avoid purchasing products that contain them. Read more about the dangerous cleaners here.
  • Amphoterics – Most of these substances are glycerine-based, and only some of them are suitable to be used as disinfectants. However, they can be mildly effective and are not harmful to the skin.
  • Biguanides – They are derivates from naturally occurring substances found in vegetables. For the most part, they are environmentally friendly, as they have mild disinfecting capabilities.
  • Acid anionics – Due to their nature, they are used as an ingredient in other compounds. They have more washing abilities than disinfecting.
Disinfectant Pros Cons
Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) ➤ Non-Corrosive ➤ Difficult to clean, as they tend to embed in the soil
➤ Foam very easily
➤ They are not very effective against fungi and bacteria
➤ Relatively weak disinfectants
Amphoterics ➤ Dissolve easily in water
➤ Excessive foaming if machine used, but are suitable for manual handling
➤ Non-Corrosive for the most part
➤  Weak effect against viruses, bacteria and fungi
Biguanides ➤ Do not foam
➤ Suitable for both manual and machine cleaning
➤ Non-Corrosive
➤ Weak effect against viruses, bacteria and fungi
Acid anionics ➤ Effective against mould and fungi ➤ Not suitable for hand use
➤ Less effective against bacteria and viruses

As you can see Oxidising disinfectants are clearly a better choice due to their superior decontamination power. However, you must remember to always wear protective gear when cleaning.

Did we manage to describe the differences between the two methods? If you still feel confused about disinfection and sanitisation, please share your thoughts in the comment section below. Our cleaning experts from Top Cleaners will gladly answer all of your queries.

Stephanie Cooper

Stephanie is a content marketing specialist for Top Cleaners for the past several years. She has extensive experience working with cleaning companies and knows her audience. Stephanie creates engaging and useful content helping the customers of Top Cleaners with their struggles and providing them with the most accurate insight.