What is the difference between cleaning and disinfecting?

What is the difference between cleaning and disinfecting?

Cleaning primarily aims to remove visible dirt, dust, stains, and debris from surfaces. It enhances the appearance of the area and creates a more pleasant and tidy environment. It involves the use of various cleaning agents, such as soap, water, detergents, and sometimes specialized cleaning products for specific surfaces. Physical actions like wiping, scrubbing, mopping, and vacuuming are used to remove dirt and grime. Cleaning works through mechanical action, which means that the physical force applied during the process loosens and lifts dirt particles, making it easier to wash them away.  While cleaning can remove some germs from surfaces, it is not designed to kill or eliminate all microorganisms effectively. Some germs may remain on the cleaned surfaces.


Disinfecting is done to kill or inactivate harmful microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, present on surfaces. The primary objective is to reduce the risk of infectious diseases and create a hygienic environment.  It involves using chemical disinfectants or antimicrobial agents to treat surfaces and objects. Different disinfectants may have specific instructions for application, contact time, and dilution to be effective. They work by disrupting the cellular structures and processes of microorganisms, rendering them incapable of reproducing or causing infections.  Proper disinfection significantly reduces the number of germs on surfaces, making them much safer for people to come into contact with. However, disinfection may not necessarily remove visible dirt or stains from surfaces.


In Summary, the difference is:

  • Cleaning involves removing dirt, stains and debris from surfaces through mechanical action and oxidisation.
  • When cleaning it doesn’t involve killing bacteria, it may remove some but most cleaners don’t specialise and not tested to kill bacteria, viruses, fungi, or yeast.
  • Whereas disinfecting involves killing and removing the germs from a surface, stopping the spread of infections.
  • Disinfecting isn’t about removing debris from a surface.

Cleaning is about removing whats visible from a surface whereas disinfecting is about killing the germs which can’t be seen but is vital to reducing the spread of infections and reducing the number of times you or your family pick up illness.


There are differences as shown, however they complement each other and should be used together in a two-step process, especially in high-traffic areas, hospitals, food preparation areas, and places where infection control is critical:

It is always recommended by professionals that you should clean the surface first so the dirt and grime is removed making the disinfectant more effective. If a surface is heavily soiled, the disinfectant may not reach all the microorganisms effectively.

Once the surface has been cleaned and dirt and debris has been removed from the surface it can be treated with a disinfectant to kill or neutralize any remaining harmful microorganisms, ensuring a hygienic and safe environment.


It's important to follow the instructions provided by the disinfectant manufacturer, including contact time (the time the disinfectant needs to remain on the surface to be effective) and safety precautions. Additionally, regular and appropriate cleaning and disinfecting practices are essential to maintain a clean and healthy environment, particularly in areas with higher risks of contamination or when dealing with infectious diseases.

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