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Sustainability & the Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, Disinfecting, and Sterilizing

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing; four important processes, each with its own subtleties. Learning why these processes are not as interchangeable as we thought helped turn cleaning our homes and workspaces into less of a hope-for-the-best situation.

If you’ve ever found yourself confused about the differences, why they matter, or what sustainable products to use, then this post is for you! Bookmark this post for the times when future you needs a refresher.


Cleaning is a process that physically removes dirt, dust and debris (think food bits) from a living or non-living surface by scrubbing, washing, and rinsing.

However, cleaning does not necessarily kill bacteria, viruses and grime. Instead, the soap molecules disrupt the chemical bonds that allow the bacteria to stick to surfaces, which reduces their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.

How does cleaning with soap & water work?

  1. A soap molecule has two different ends; one that binds with water (hydrophilic) and another binds with grease and oil (lipophilic).

  2. Viruses and bacteria have an outer layer made up of proteins and fat.

  3. The lipophilic (oil-loving) side of the soap molecule binds to the fat-based outer layer of a virus or bacteria, pulls it apart and holds it in suspension to be carried away by the water.

Do you need to clean before disinfecting?

Yes! Germs and bacteria can hide underneath dirt and debris on surfaces where a sanitizer or disinfectant can’t reach underneath. Think of dust particles, food bits, strands of hair, and dirt clumps as furniture on your floor. You wouldn’t take a mop and wipe over your couch and coffee table, hoping to affect the floor beneath. The same goes for the bread crumbs, kale remnants and hard-to-see dirt particles left on your counter– the living bacteria that create those organisms can interfere with and reduce the germ-killing ability of some disinfectants. When in doubt, remove the big guys first.


Reduces the bacteria population on both living & non-living surfaces and laundry but does not destroy or eliminate all bacteria.

Because it doesn’t destroy 100% of all types of bacteria, sanitizing is a process safe for humans– we sanitize our hands, not disinfect. Sanitizing is especially important in food preparation areas to mitigate foodborne illnesses.

Sanitizer products have generic registrations with Health Canada, FDA, and EPA for what bacteria they fight are required to work between 30 seconds to 1 minute.


Destroys or inactivates 100% of select bacteria, fungi & viruses on non-porous surfaces.

Disinfecting requires a more robust solution and is thus used for inanimate objects, not humans, animals, plants, or marine life. However, disinfectants do not kill spores* and require sterilization to do so.

Disinfectants are subject to more rigorous testing requirements by Health Canada, FDA and EPA as they are legally required to list every organism it claims to kill. Disinfectants should remain untouched on a surface for a minimum of 10 minutes to be most effective.

Did You Know

A solution like Hypochlorous acid (HOCl) can be both a sanitizer and disinfectant, depending on the active ingredient’s concentration levels? As a registered disinfectant, Anolyte 500 has a higher HOCl content than its sanitizer counterpart Anolyte 200.

*Spores exist when bacteria grow a hard outer shell making it resistant to chemical attacks—this is a coping mechanism for specific bacterial species (i.e., Bacillus cereus, which causes food poisoning) attempting to survive harsh environmental conditions.


Destroys and eliminates all bacteria, harmful pathogens, and microbial life, including spores from a surface.

Steam and boiling water are the most effective ways to sterilize metal and glass at home.


Cleaning removes dirt and debris but does not kill bacteria and should always happen before disinfecting.

Sanitizing reduces bacteria populations between 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Disinfecting destroys rather than reduces bacteria and viruses (except spores) and should be left on surfaces for a minimum of 10 minutes.

Sterilization kills all forms of microbial life, including spores.


When to Clean, Sanitize, Disinfect, or Sterilize?

Cleaning is a daily habit– whether it be your hands, laundry, dishes, or utensils, bowls, and pans after meal prep, you are working with the magic of soap and detergents to keep life healthy. Remember, we don’t want to remove all microbial life forms; they build our immune systems and keep our ecosystems vibrant.

When it comes to fruits and vegetables

Clean, Degrease & Remove– Spray your produce with cleaner/degreaser Catholyte to disrupt the chemical bond of pesticides, residues, dirt, and other bacteria that accumulate during the growing, shipping, and handling processes.

Sanitizing is useful for communal surfaces like countertops, sinks, showers, toilets, and touch frequently after touching other surfaces. Things like keyboards, cellphones, computer mice, and steering wheels could use a good sanitizing several times a month to keep harmful pathogens at bay. This process is also helpful for pieces that spend a lot of time in or on the body– like menstrual cups, underwear, and bedding. Don’t forget to clean items first with soap and water or an all-purpose cleaner like Catholyte.

When it comes to fruits and vegetables that can come into contact with E. coli

Sanitize– Spray Anolyte 200 on produce such as lettuces, sprouts, spinach, and certain fruits.

Disinfecting is useful when someone around you is ill or has a compromised immune system. It can also be useful to disinfect the same areas mentioned above during heightened illness seasons (or a global pandemic, perhaps!). Anolyte 500 is a registered disinfectant that is also effective against COVID-19.

Sterilizing the equipment you use for fermenting, pickling and kombucha are critical. These are instances where you want to eliminate all microbial life that could potentially affect the bacterial growth in each process. Pour boiling water over your items or submerge them in a pot depending on the material. Silicone, metal and glass are generally safe for submerging in boiling water whereas plastic is not. Always check the materials list first!


Where sustainable products like Hypochlorous acid truly shine are in moments like these– where harmful pathogens, viruses, and bacteria need to be eradicated but not at the expense of the good bacteria. When we perform these four processes, the water doesn’t go away (we’ve learned this from our landfill problems); the water and our chemical cleaners go into our waterways, forests, and surrounding ecosystems, greatly impacting the life within them. Choosing a product that performs exceptionally while completely degrading back into its original three elements when out of our homes is critical for ensuring the wellbeing of us, the planet, and all its creatures. To learn more about hypochlorous acid, read this.

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