More than Merely Words
At a time when we're being bombarded with suggestions, guidance, and often contradictory information on COVID-19, it can be helpful to take a breather and seek clarity.
Since the very start of the pandemic, the message has been to clean and clean properly by utilising the right procedures and products in the right places - and at the right times.
But uncertainty has often accompanied that message; at least in part as a consequence of the indiscriminate use of the terms, 'cleaning', 'sanitising' and 'disinfecting'.
Contrary to the impression that is often conveyed in the media, these terms are neither synonymous, nor interchangeable, but conceal essential distinctions.
Cleaning may be defined as the action of making something clean - or, in other words, of removing dirt, microorganisms, marks, stains or other impurities.
Cleaning with general cleaners removes dirt particles, debris and many microorganisms from a surface giving it a “clean” appearance, but general cleaners are not specifically designed to kill pathogens that can cause an illness. Sanitizers and disinfectants reduce or remove, respectively, the bacteria count on a surface, yet it is important to understand their differences, in order to know which products to choose for which job. It is worth noting that in the current case of the coronavirus, it has been demonstrated that traditional detergents and soaps are effective in deactivating the virus by dissolving its lipid outer membrane, rendering it harmless.
Good practice dictates that any cleaning process starts with using a general-purpose cleaner to remove grease, dirt and debris particles. This should happen before any sanitizing or disinfection steps are undertaken, as the remaining dirt otherwise “consumes” the effective ingredients in either a sanitizer or a disinfectant. After the surface is properly cleaned, it is then important to decide whether to sanitize or disinfect.
A sanitiser is an anti-microbial agent that kills or renders inactive most bacteria, fungi, and some viruses that are present on a surface. Sanitisers typically reduce microorganisms on a surface to a level considered safe by public health standards, which is a 99.9 per cent reduction within 30 seconds.
The act of sanitising may therefore be defined providing surfaces with a degree of disinfection.
A disinfectant is an agent that destroys, neutralizes or inhibits the growth of microorganisms. Disinfectants go a step beyond sanitisers to make a surface safer. These products include bactericides, fungicides, virucides, each of which kills a specific type of microorganism – bacteria, fungi or viruses, respectively. Disinfectant kills nearly 100 per cent (99.999 per cent) of bacteria, viruses and fungi on a surface in a 5 to 10-minute period.
Sanitisers and disinfectants compared
The distinction between sanitisers and disinfectants may seem small, but consider that surfaces contain millions of pathogens, and depending on the microorganism, only a few particles may be necessary to spread infection.
The other important thing to consider is which particular virus, bacteria or fungi a disinfectant is effective against. There are some areas where using a sanitiser to kill the majority of germs is adequate. For instance, in the foodservice industry, sanitisers are sufficient to clean dishes and utensils, as well as tables and surfaces in a restaurant. The sanitiser kills germs effectively and quickly so that surfaces and tableware are ready for repeated use.
Where building occupants are more vulnerable to germs, there will be a greater need for disinfecting, such as in healthcare, education settings, or senior living facilities. At the same time, those servicing office buildings should still disinfect high-touch surfaces, such as elevator buttons, door handles and toilet flush handles. Disinfectants are also recommended in areas where occupants come in direct contact with a surface, such as a shower floor in a gym, where athlete’s foot might be a concern.
In all of this, we should remember that thorough and effective cleaning achieves what can be called "targeted hygiene"; as cleaning with detergents across all non-critical touch surfaces can promote development of resistant pathogens in a way disinfectants cannot.
After all, it is only by removing dirt and sources of food for pathogens from surfaces that we reduce the microbial load on any surface to levels which are not considered harmful.