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What is the difference between a Disinfectant and a Sanitizer?

Disinfectants are distinguished from sanitizers in several ways.

Both sanitizers and disinfectants are products regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA establishes the rules that govern these products including their testing, claims, and direction for use. A disinfectant must completely eliminate all the organisms listed on its label. These organisms are not limited to bacteria but could include viruses and fungi. Sanitizers need not eliminate 100% of all organisms to be effective—nor are fungi or viruses ever included in a sanitizing claim. For food contact surfaces, a sanitizer must reduce the bacterial count by 99.999%. 

Most disinfectants and sanitizers are intended to by used on hard, non-porous, environmental surfaces such as walls, floors, countertops, and tables. A disinfectant can be used on food contact surfaces, such as a countertops, utensils, and glassware: however, the surfaces need to be rinsed with uncontaminated water after being disinfected. A food contact sanitizer needs no rinse after sanitizing a food contact surface. A food contact sanitizer is designed to function as the final rinse on food contact surfaces such as tables, countertops, utensils, and glassware.

In its ready-to-use formula, the active ingredient concentration in a quaternary disinfectant product can range from 400 to 1000 ppm. The active ingredient concentration for a food contact sanitizer is limited to 150 to 400 ppm. The difference in active ingredient concentration is the result of the different sets of tests and rules that EPA establishes for each type of claim. Additionally, no perfumes are allowed in food contact sanitizers, but perfumes are often used in disinfectants.

The directions for most disinfectants typically instruct the user to allow the disinfectant to be left on the surface for 10 minutes. Typical sanitizing directions instruct the users to leave the sanitizing solution on the surface from anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes.


Disinfectants and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
In the United States, disinfectants and disinfectant cleaners must be reviewed and registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before they can be offered for sale. EPA assigns a registration number for each product and that number must be clearly displayed on every container of the product. Companies submitting disinfectants for registration are required to include current efficacy data to prove that their product kills ALL of the microorganisms listed on the product label. For instance, if the product label claims to kill staphylococcus aureus, then test data must be submitted to EPA to prove that the product when diluted according to label directions kills the staphylococcus aureus bacteria.

Efficacy Tests Measure the Effectiveness of Disinfectants
The tests used to measure the effectiveness of disinfectants on various pathogenic (disease causing) organisms are called, efficacy tests. The EPA must pre-approve all "efficacy test methods" used to measure the effectiveness of disinfectants against specific microorganisms. The most common efficacy test prescribed by EPA is the Association of Official Analytical Chemist (AOAC) Use Dilution Confirmation Test. Currently, for a disinfectant cleaner to be registered by EPA as hospital strength, it must be effective at its recommended dilution in killing targeted pathogens in the presence of 400 ppm hard water and 5% organic serum. It must kill 100% of the targeted test organisms.

What are the Differences Between Disinfectants and Disinfectant Cleaners?
Disinfectants require the removal of soils from a surface before they are effective. Disinfectant cleaners combine the cleaner and disinfectant into a "one-step" process. A disinfectant-cleaner is diluted and then used to remove soils and kill germs all in one application. One step disinfectant-cleaners save labor time and money. Simply stated, disinfectants “disinfect” and disinfectant-cleaners "disinfect and clean." If you are uncertain if your product is a disinfectant or disinfectant-cleaner, read the product label carefully. If the label does not mention "cleans and disinfects," then it is probably a disinfectant or sanitizer and not a one-step disinfectant-cleaner.

Chlorine Bleach Solutions Are Excellent Disinfectants, But Poor Cleaners
Household and institutional chlorine bleaches contain 5.25% active sodium hypochlorite when they are manufactured. The remaining 94.75% is primarily water. Chlorinated compounds such as sodium hypochlorite when diluted in water form hypochlorous acid. This acid is extremely effective against many types of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. For instance, the product label for Clorox household bleach claims it is effective against staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria, Influenza A and B viruses, and athletes foot fungus. However, chlorine bleach products require that the surfaces be cleaned prior to their use. This means doubling the time that it takes to clean and disinfect a soiled surface.

Disadvantages of Using Chlorine Bleach

Many institutions do not commonly use chlorine bleach products because they:

1. Lack detergency
2. react with other chemicals to create toxic gases
3. emit unpleasant odors
4. attack hard surfaces
5. discolor fibers and colored surfaces
6. damage floor finishes
7. lose their strength rapidly

Quaternary Ammonium Chlorides or "quats",as they are commonly known, are based upon the active ingredient benzalkonium chloride. These quaternary salt compounds can be formulated with a variety of ingredients to provide a safe and effective neutral pH, disinfectant-cleaner without damaging floor finishes or sensitive floor surfaces. In addition, quats are an economical and extremely effective odor control agents when used accordingly with label directions.

Quats are effective in destroying a broad spectrum of harmful microorganisms. They are effective in killing the following microorganisms while cleaning the surfaces upon which they reside – all in one simple step.

1. Gram negative and gram positive bacteria like salmonella typhi, staphylococcus aureus, streptococcus epidermidis, and pseudomonas aeruginosa.
2. Viruses like HIV-1, Herpes simplex 1 and 2.
3. Antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria including methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
4. and fungi like trichophyton interdigitale (athlete's foot).


Ten Questions to Answer Before Selecting a Disinfectant-Cleaner
1. Does the product have an EPA Registration Number?
2. What is the active ingredients? (Quats, Phenolics, Chlorine Bleach, Iodine)
3. Is it safe for daily use by housekeepers and custodians?
4. Will it damage the surfaces cleaned?
5. What germs does it kill?
6. What is the dilution ratio of the product?
7. Is it a "one-step" disinfectant-cleaner or a disinfectant?
8. Is it effective in hard water?
9. Is it effective in the presence of organic soil?
10. What is the end-use cost of the product?