Clean, sanitize and disinfect

What is the difference, and the best situation to use each.

Clean, sanitize and disinfect. These are words commonly used and often interchanged, but each is a very different step of the food safety process. This interchanging of terminology can be confusing, and can result in ineffective practices and the spread of foodborne disease. So what is the difference?

Cleaning is the process of removing dirt, germs and other material from surfaces by washing them down the drain. This is done with water, a cleaning product like soap or detergent and scrubbing. Cleaning mainly aims to remove visible, physical dirt. It does not kill germs, mold or fungi. Clean first, before sanitizing or disinfecting, because physical dirt can affect how well the sanitizer works.

Sanitizing is the process of reducing the number of germs on a surface to levels considered safe by public health codes. This is done by using a commercial sanitizing product. The most commonly used and readily available sanitizing solution is regular chlorine bleach and water. The most important part of sanitizing is making sure to mix the solution at the proper ratio, then letting it stand on the surface for the recommended time. For example, bleach used for sanitizing should be mixed at a rate of one tablespoon bleach to one gallon of water, or a concentration of 50-90 ppm, and requires a contact time of 30 seconds. It is also important to test the concentration often to make sure the solution is consistent. Sanitizer test strips purchased at food service stores can be used to do this. While sanitizing reduces the number of pathogens on a surface, it does not kill all of them.

Disinfecting destroys or inactivates most pathogens on a surface. It is also achieved by using a commercial product, like bleach. The difference between disinfecting and sanitizing is the concentration of the solution. Disinfecting takes a stronger solution. In the case of bleach, a solution of one-quarter to three-quarters cups of bleach to one gallon water is recommended, with a contact time of two minutes. As you can see, that is significantly more bleach than in the sanitizing process.

Why not just use the disinfecting concentration all the time to ensure more germs are killed? Unfortunately, such harsh chemicals can have negative effects on health, and using the strongest concentration all the time could lead to skin irritation, asthma or other adverse effects. Using the correct process for the job will help ensure a food safe environment and limit negative effects. Cleaning should always be performed prior to sanitizing or disinfecting. Michigan State University Extension recommends changing your cleaning water often to prevent further spread of dirt and germs. For most occasions, sanitizing would be the next step. Be sure to follow the directions on whichever product you are using for best results. Disinfecting should only be used when there are a large number of pathogens/germs present. For example, if cleaning up after a sick person in your home or restaurant, or if there is a large spill of potentially germ-filled material, such as raw chicken juice. For more tips on cleaning, sanitizing and recommendations for “green” products, check out Colorado State University Extension.

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