To Sanitize or Disinfect... That is the Question

Sanitize or Disinfect Sanitize or Disinfect
Dale Grinstead
Ph.D. Senior Technology Fellow
Aug 11, 2020

Disinfectants and sanitizers are both chemicals that kill undesirable microorganisms on surfaces. However, they are not the same and cannot be used interchangeably. It is important for any food facility to understand the differences between these two chemicals and select the correct one.

Employees who are responsible for cleaning need to understand the difference between disinfecting and sanitizing.  Disinfectants and sanitizers are intended for very different purposes.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), disinfecting is intended to destroy or irreversibly inactivate all infectious fungi and bacteria. Meanwhile, sanitizers are not meant to kill all microorganisms, but rather reduce the number of microorganisms to a safe level.[1]

Sanitizers have a lower level of antimicrobial efficacy than disinfectants, and they are safe for use on food surfaces. In general, any surface that comes in contact with food needs to be sanitized. Any sanitizer used needs to be approved for use on food contact surfaces and should be effective against any specific organism that the food establishment is trying to control. For example, if the organism that you want to control is Listeria monocytogenes, it does no good to use a sanitizer that is not effective against that organism. Sanitizers are always applied after the surface has been cleaned and rinsed. The sanitizer is not rinsed off the surface and is allowed to air dry.

Disinfectants, even though they have a higher level of antimicrobial efficacy, should not be used in place of a sanitizer. Sanitizers are safe to use and will not hazardous if they contaminate food that comes into contact with a sanitized surface. That is not the case for a disinfectant.

A time when it is appropriate to use a disinfectant on a surface that food will come in contact with is if there is a concern that a surface may be contaminated with a virus, such as Norovirus. In this case, surfaces should be cleaned, rinsed, disinfected with a disinfectant that is registered with the EPA as effective against the specific virus of concern. However, after that food contact surface has been disinfected it mustbe rinsed once more and then sanitized as normal using a food contact surface sanitizer.

Using sanitizers and disinfectants
Although there are no regulatory requirements from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding floors and other non-food contact surface sanitation, it is good practice for food facilities to have a microbial control process in place to reduce the risk of cross contamination from such surfaces. Disinfectants or sanitizers can be used on surfaces such as floors. Often for ease of use and to avoid confusion and possible misuse, it is easiest to use the same sanitizer on kitchen floors that is used on the food contact surfaces in the kitchen.

It is important for food facilities to use the appropriate antimicrobial agents. When disinfectants are used on surfaces where sanitizers should be used instead, food facilities run the risk of contaminating food with antimicrobial agents. It is also a violation of federal law to use antimicrobial agents in a manner that is inconsistent with their labels, a practice known as “off label” use. This “off label” use would include using a disinfectant when a sanitizer should be used. Product labels provide directions for the type of surfaces the solution can be used on, as well as instructions for use.

Your chemical supplier can help you select the correct sanitizers and disinfectants for your antimicrobial needs. They can also provide training and guidance on the use of these chemicals and help protect your customers and your brand from the damage that undesirable microorganisms can cause.

For more information about how Diversey can support your food safety program, visit