Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there seems to be confusion both in and outside of the cleaning industry regarding the terms “sanitize” and “disinfect.” In part, this is probably due to the use of hand “sanitizer.” In some other cases, however, the confusion is created by the desire to reassure customers and building occupants that their surfaces are “sanitized” and, therefore, COVID-free. In this instance, the use of the word sanitize is a misnomer—and potentially dangerous.
Confusion Sets In
Many of us have seen the news clips of airline flight crews spraying a formula onto a seat or tray table and immediately wiping it down as the commentator explains the inside of the plane is being “sanitized.”
What this really means is that they are spraying a disinfectant but not leaving it on for the proper “dwell” time—i.e., the time the formula remains wet and in contact with the surface—to allow the solution to actually disinfect. However, as is often the case, continued usage breeds acceptance, and pretty soon, much of the general public has come to believe a surface said to be sanitized is safe and virus-free.
Sanitizing vs. Disinfectants
By correct definition, sanitizers are specific formulas most often used in food-related settings and in some restrooms that reduce—but do not kill—pathogens to an EPA-approved safe level of 99.9% on nonfood-related surfaces (99.999% on food-contact surfaces) in 30 seconds or less. It is important to note that, in addition to their inability to kill pathogens, when it comes to effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, or any virus, the EPA is clear: “There are no sanitizer-only products with approved virus claims.”
Disinfectants are chemicals that kill (not reduce) 99.999% of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other pathogens. Disinfectants require a longer dwell time than sanitizers to work, usually three to 10 minutes. If the disinfectant is not allowed the proper dwell time, the surface will not be disinfected.
Know Your Disinfecting Facts
Below are a few additional, vital points to remember about disinfectants.
- All disinfectants used in the United States must be EPA-approved.
- Surface disinfectants are subject to more rigorous EPA testing requirements than surface sanitizers and must meet a higher bar for effectiveness.
- No one disinfectant kills all pathogens.
- A disinfectant is only effective against the viruses and other pathogens the EPA has specifically approved it to kill; these must be a listed on the disinfectant’s label and appear in its safety data sheet (SDS). The same is true for the method of application. If, for example, a fogger or mister is not listed on the disinfectant’s label as approved for use in this equipment, it should never be used and, in fact, it is illegal to do so. The method of application changes the efficacy of disinfectants; using a disinfectant in equipment that it has not been approved for can render it ineffective.
- The EPA’s N List includes those disinfectants approved by the agency to be effective against SARS-CoV-2. Using disinfectants not on this list cannot guarantee the surface is SARS-CoV-2-free and can lead to a false sense of security.
- Certain products are registered with the EPA as both sanitizers and disinfectants. However, if disinfecting is the goal, the exact pathogen targeted must appear on the label and directions for disinfecting must be followed, which usually calls for a longer dwell time.
Always the First Step
Even with a disinfectant, there is a need to clean first. Cleaning consists of using a solution with some form of agitation, such as microfiber cloth, sponge, or in the case of hands, the action of rubbing them together, to remove loose dirt and debris. This step is just as important in the fight against COVID-19 as disinfecting. In some cases, including seldom-used spaces or outdoor areas such as playgrounds and parks where the CDC recommends not disinfecting, cleaning is all that is required.
If a surface is not cleaned prior to disinfecting, loose dirt and debris can shield viruses and other pathogens from the disinfectant, allowing them to live and even multiply. Similarly, not cleaning surfaces between disinfectant applications can create biofilm buildup, a condition in which pathogens can thrive.
Todays’ facility occupants want to know the environments in which they live, work, and play are clean and healthy. Some might say finally, they are recognizing our industry’s role in infection prevention and are looking to us for guidance. To take on this leadership role, we must ourselves understand and be united in our efforts to promote only those processes, protocols, and products that will keep us all safer.