Home Home-improvementCleaning The Difference between Cleaning, Disinfecting and Sterilising

The Difference between Cleaning, Disinfecting and Sterilising

by Buddhi Warnakulasuriya
Medical Centre Cleaning Melbourne

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from living through the age of COVID, it’s that cleaning standards are incredibly important. This is particularly true for businesses and commercial premises that cater to vulnerable people like healthcare, aged-care and childcare facilities. It’s also important for businesses that handle products that can be easily contaminated like food processing, pharmaceuticals and some manufacturing.

Understanding the different levels of cleaning can help you to determine what type of cleaning is required for your business and ensure that your staff, customers and clients remain healthy and well cared for. So let’s have a look at the difference between cleaning, disinfecting and sterilising.


Cleaning can be seen as an umbrella term that includes the different standards of cleanliness like sterilising and disinfecting. However, something can be clean without being disinfected or sterile.

In general terms, cleaning refers to the physical removal of contaminants. This could mean vacuuming carpets, mopping floors, or dusting or wiping down surfaces. Cleaning will usually remove the visible dirt, stains or contaminants. However, basic surface cleaning will not generally kill microorganisms, bacteria and other germs.

While a surface may appear visibly clean (or feel or smell clean), it can still harbour a range of bacteria, germs and insects. For example, after vacuuming, a carpet may look and feel clean. However, the carpet may still be home to bacteria, mould and insects, which vacuuming may not be enough to remove.

Basic cleaning is adequate for weekly residential cleaning. However, for specialist commercial cleaning, like medical centre cleaning, you will require a more thorough clean that includes disinfecting and sterilising.


Disinfecting is a higher level of cleaning that is designed to kill or remove germs and bacteria on surfaces. In the age of COVID, disinfecting is incredibly important to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. Disinfecting is usually done by applying chemical cleaners to a surface. Common household disinfectants include bleach and alcohol-based cleaners.

Disinfecting may not clean a surface (i.e. remove the visible stains and marks), but it will kill the bacteria and germs. When applied correctly and left for the appropriate length of time, disinfectants are effective against most viruses, mould and fungi, with many quality disinfectants effective against the COVID-19 virus. However, while disinfecting is generally effective against most bacteria, it will not always be effective against their spores, which can lay dormant and reproduce later.

Sanitising is a form of disinfecting that lowers the number of germs on a surface to a level that is in line with public health standards or requirements. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a sanitiser is a chemical product that can kill at least 99.9% of germs on hard surfaces, while a disinfectant is stronger, killing 99.999% of germs on hard surfaces or objects.


Sterilisation is the highest level of cleaning and is usually required for high-risk areas like medical centres and healthcare facilities, laboratories, pharmaceutical manufacturing and some food processing facilities.

Medical grade sterilisation removes all microorganisms, including those that aren’t harmful, for a necessary period of time. Sterilisation processes can be dangerous and are usually carried out by professionals. Methods include:

  • Pressurised steam (autoclaving)
  • Hydrogen peroxide gas
  • Ethylene oxide (EtO) gas
  • Ionising radiation (typically used for medical equipment)
  • Dry heat cabinets
  • Infrared radiation
  • Advanced filtration

Sterilisation is carried out on surfaces and objects like medical instruments. For sterilisation to be effective other precautions must be taken to ensure an environment remains sterile. These can include using clean air filtration systems, limiting access to authorised personnel, wearing sterile gloves and clothing, wearing sterile face masks and thoroughly washing and disinfecting before entering the sterile environment.

Understanding what type of cleaning your premises require will help you to ensure that you’re achieving the appropriate level of cleanliness while not spending too much time and money on cleaning activities.

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