Sanitising, Disinfection and Sterilization – What’s the Difference?

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COVID-19 has introduced a new style of living where each person must take responsibility for their own health and hygiene. These days you hardly find someone who has not heard of the word “sanitizing”, “disinfection” or “sterilization”.

Hand sanitizers are flying off the shelves and at some point, some retailers ran out of stock! Normally these words are being used interchangeably yet they mean different things. Everyone wants to sanitize their hands and disinfect surfaces in order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Sanitizing vs Disinfecting

However, what exactly does do the terms sanitizing and disinfecting mean?

Basically, sanitizing simply means eliminating germs or “reducing the number of germs to at least 99.99%”. While a sanitiser reduces the number of germs to at least 99.99% a disinfectant aims to kill almost 100% of germs present on a surface. Although there doesn’t appear to much difference, there is, as these two terms can determine the difference between eliminating a serious infection or not.

In most instances, you would not normally use a disinfectant but mainly a sanitizer. For example, you would use a sanitizer for your hands and then usually use a disinfectant for toilets seats or clean surfaces in clinics. Thus most of the alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill almost 99.99% of harmful germs whereas households’ bleaches contain chemical solutions such as sodium hypochlorite that kill almost 99.9999% of harmful germs.


Then there is the term “sterilization”. If you see this term being branded by companies doing disinfection, be careful!

Sterilization is a serious business. While sanitizing and disinfection mainly target germs that one would regard as harmful, sterilization KILLS everything. It basically wipes out all the germs. Thus if you are informed that a surface is sterile you would not expect to see any germs on that surface.

For example, humans have thousands of germs on our skin, many of which are important for our survival. If a person claims that they can give you something to sterilize your hands, you should avoid this totally. The chemicals would simply be too strong to apply to your hands, they would kill everything both the good and harmful germs.

Example of a Sterilization Method

In the food industry, for instance, heating milk at 130°C for 30 seconds is sterilization. It is done to kill all the germs that could be present so that the milk can be kept for a long time at normal room temperature without spoilage. So imagine how strong the chemical concentration or heat would need to be to endure having your hands sterilized.


As consumers, we must be well informed about these differences so that unscrupulous companies do not take advantage of us in providing incorrect products. It is our duty to seek information and ensure that we do not fall prey to the scams that have been reported in the media. This is why understanding this type of critical information is important.

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