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How Cleaning Differs from Disinfection

by | Jul 7, 2020

People often use the terms “cleaning” and “disinfection” interchangeably in everyday conversation. While each of these terms refers to a method of decontamination, they have significantly different meanings. This may not seem like an issue, but the fact of the matter is that these terms represent two completely different processes, and the failure to use the proper method of decontamination could have severe consequences. In the case of healthcare and other germ sensitive environments, failure to utilize the proper method could result in serious infections, or even death.

The easiest way to understand the differences between cleaning and disinfection is to understand their individual definitions:

Cleaning is the process by which foreign material such as dirt and grime are removed from the surface of an object (UCLA, n.d.).

Disinfection is the process of killing or rendering pathogenic microorganisms inert to a level that is not harmful to human health (CDC, 2009).

A rule of thumb for establishing the differences between these terms is to remember that an object that is clean is not necessarily disinfected, and an object that is disinfected may not be clean.

Below we take a deeper look at the process of cleaning and the methods that are available to achieve this basic level of decontamination.

What is the True Meaning of Clean?

In terms of killing germs, cleaning is the least effective of all of the methods outlined above. The purpose of cleaning is to remove physical, visible surface contaminants such as dirt and grime. Some germs are usually killed in the process of cleaning, but this typically depends on the cleaning agent being used. In some cases, the tools used for cleaning such as sponges and paper towels can transfer germs from surface to surface. For this reason, it is very important to properly disinfect, sterilize, or dispose of cleaning tools after use.

From an infection control standpoint, cleaning is appropriate for decontaminating low-risk medical devices that are only used on intact skin or typically do not come into contact with the patient at all (i.e. sinks, floors, etc…) (IFIC, n.d.). For equipment that is handled by patients or anyone else with very high germ sensitivity, cleaning is only appropriate as a first step to remove visible dirt and fingerprints before sanitizing, disinfecting, or sterilizing the device.

Methods of Cleaning 

Cleaning is accomplished through the use of soap or detergent and water. There are two primary methods of cleaning the surfaces of medical devices and environmental surfaces: manual and mechanical.

Manual Cleaning

Manual cleaning is typically performed in areas where mechanical cleaning methods are not available, or when dealing with equipment that is potentially fragile. Manual cleaning is accomplished by scrubbing the surface of an object with a brush to produce friction to remove dirt, or by rinsing the object with enough water pressure to remove surface buildup.

Examples of when manual cleaning is appropriate: Mobile devices, vials & other glassware (when dealing with non-harmful contaminants such as dust), computer screens, bed railings, countertops & similar surfaces.

Mechanical Cleaning 

Mechanical cleaning varies based on the desired level of germ control, but the most common types are ultrasonic and washer-decontaminaters. Ultrasonic cleaning solutions use waves of acoustic energy in an aqueous solution to break down the bonds holding dirt to the surface. Washer-decontaminaters act like a dishwasher and use water circulation, detergents, and sometimes heat to remove grime from objects (CDC, 2009).

Examples of when mechanical cleaning is appropriate: Dishes and utensils, bed sheets & similar fabrics, smaller medical tools (be sure to determine if cleaning is an appropriate level of decontamination).


Cleaning is a simple process that is very important in limiting the spread of germs in our daily lives. Simple tasks such as washing your hands will go a long way in preventing the transference of bacteria, which is critical in germ sensitive areas. However, in clinical settings where dangerous bacteria have the ability to linger even after soap and water, the process of disinfection becomes critical in keeping both patients and staff safe.

It is extremely important to identify the level of decontamination that is appropriate for your situation. Your germ-sensitivity and the target of your disinfection (mobile devices, surfaces, equipment, etc…) will determine the most appropriate process of decontamination. Be sure to consult any manufacturer warranties before selecting your appropriate method of decontamination.

About the Author

David Engelhardt has over 26 years of experience in software and hardware solutions development in healthcare and manufacturing, with a particular focus on mobile technologies. David is the founder and President of ReadyDock Inc. He is passionate and committed to providing safe, and workflow efficient methods to enable clinicians and patients to enhance care through the use of innovative technologies. In the small window of time when he is not working or spending time with his amazing wife and daughter, he spends his time playing USTA tennis, collecting vinyl records, and shaping music and sound in his recording studio.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009, December 29). Guideline for disinfection and sterilization in healthcare facilities, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/hicpac/Disinfection_Sterilization/5_0cleaning.html
International Federation of Infection Control. (n.d.).Infection control: Basic concepts and practices. Retrieved from http://www.ific.narod.ru/Manual/Clean.htm
UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. (n.d.). Definitions. Retrieved from http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/bioter/anthapha_def_a.html

Photo by Nino Maghradze on Unsplash

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