Cleaning or Disinfecting: What's the Difference?

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on July 31, 2012
photo of woman reaching into clothes dryer

You want to protect your family from dirt and germs, but getting rid of every germ isn't possible -- or necessary. In most cases, clean is good enough, says Atlanta pediatrician Jennifer Shu, MD.

Cleaning involves getting rid of dirt and gunk where germs can grow. The friction of cleaning -- often with soap and water -- removes most surface germs, which is adequate for most household surfaces. In other cases, however, it's a good idea to disinfect, which destroys or inactivates most of the germs.

Here's a quick guide on when to do which and how to go about it.

"In general, you don't have to be overly careful about laundry," Shu says. You want clean clothes, but disinfecting them usually isn't necessary. For heavily soiled clothing, she recommends rinsing them before putting them in the wash. Some washers have a "soak" feature for that purpose.

When washing, use laundry detergent and the warmest water recommended on the clothing label, she says. "Generally the warmer the water, the more germs you will kill."

If a family member has been sick with the flu or other infectious illness, however, disinfecting the laundry may help prevent illness from spreading to others. To disinfect laundry, add chlorine bleach (for whites only) to the wash. If you are washing clothes at a coin laundry, wipe the surface of the machine with a disinfectant before loading. Then add a disinfectant to the wash cycle. Follow the directions on the disinfectant label for adding to wash.

Regularly disinfect surfaces that are touched by more than one person, particularly if someone in the family is sick, Shu says. These include doorknobs, refrigerator door handles, microwaves, faucets, and toilet flushers. Clean them and then disinfect with a commercial disinfectant or make your own by adding no more than a cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water. Or combine steps by using a single product designed to clean and disinfect. Look for products that say they are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency on the label.

For electronic devices such as phones, remote controls, game controls, and computer keyboards, wipe with sanitizer cloths or use a product designed for electronics. Computer keyboards can also be covered with a plastic or silicone cover to make cleaning and disinfecting easier, Shu says.

How often to disinfect? That depends on how often the area is trafficked, Shu tells WebMD. "It would be nice to do it once a day if you can. If somebody is sick you definitely want to step it up a little bit."

For toys that are used by one child, neither disinfecting nor frequent cleaning is necessary. "A good idea is to clean it if there is visible junk in it, such as dirt, blood mucus -- that kind of thing." Use warm, soapy water to clean toy surfaces.

Keeping a clean car is more a personal preference that a health issue, Shu says. If you are the only one who drives your car, disinfecting surfaces such as steering wheels and gear shifts is not necessary. But the surfaces you encounter when you get out of the car are another story.

Often touched surfaces such as shopping cart handles or ATM key pads are teeming with germs. If disinfectant wipes are available at shopping places, use them to wipe cart handles or other surfaces before you or your children touch them. Bring your own wipes along for germy surfaces.

It's not possible to clean or disinfect every surface you have contact with. In fact, keeping hands clean is the first line of defense for keeping infection-causing germs from reaching your mouth, nose, or eyes, where they can make you sick.

"Get kids in the routine of washing their hands any time they see something dirty on them, anytime they come in from outdoors, before eating, and after using the bathroom," Shu says. And keep antibacterial hand wipes with you to clean kids' hands -- and yours -- when you can't use soap and water. "You do what you can, but you can't avoid every single germ. If you can get those habits going that's a great start."

Show Sources

Photo Credit: monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images


Jefferson County (Alabama) Department of Health: "Recommendations on Cleaning and Disinfecting Surfaces in the Home and in Public Places."

National Association for the Education of Young Children: "Sanitizing, and Disinfecting Frequency Table."

New Mexico State University: "Getting Clothes Clean."

Jennifer Shu, MD, pediatrician, Atlanta; spokesperson, American Academy of Pediatrics.

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