What is the difference between sanitation, disinfection, and sterilization?

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The contagious nature of germs and viruses, among other microorganisms, have caused many diseases to humans. In addition to the failure to adhere to established guidelines, the emergence of various pandemics has been reported. These pathogens are a significant threat to the human race for thousands of years. Therefore, being responsible for innumerable deaths since the beginning of civilization. Most of these pathogens can be found almost everywhere, in water and dry land, with growing and rapid numbers.

The study conducted by Indrei et al. (2019) found chemical substances suitable for maintaining sanitary and hygienic conditions in health practices. According to the CDC, the United States of America alone performs almost 46.5 million procedures annually.

This threat posed by pathogens necessitated how to achieve interrupted contamination. Fortunately, various methods of eliminating pathogens were developed. Given the imposed dangers, the CDC recommends the use of sanitizers, disinfectants, and sterilizers. But the words are usually used interchangeably despite the evident differences. And here is a reasonable understanding of what is in your spring-cleaning closet.

The use of sanitizers

Sanitizers are available in gel, liquid, or foam, and these are used to disinfect hands. Golin, Choi, and Ghahary (2020) acknowledged that such modes of sanitizer delivery using alcohol disinfectant. The principal categories of sanitizers used are alcohol disinfecting agents. And the other is alcohol-free hand sanitizers, having benzalkonium chloride as its active ingredient.

The difference between disinfectant and sterilizer

They are all referred to as decontamination processes. The difference between these two processes is the methods used, but they serve the same purpose. However, there is some defence mechanism that these pathogens can form to make most disinfectant products ineffective against them. That is when they are covered in spores. But sterilization process can destroy all these pathogens, including their spores, which makes the difference between the two methods.

According to the CDC, disinfection and sterilization processes are used to serve the same purpose, but you can’t use one in place of the other. Each product or method is only used where it is suitable. For example, sterilizers cannot be used to disinfect wounds because they use strong chemicals to kill the surrounding tissue. But if you use appropriate disinfectants like hydrogen peroxide to disinfect an injury, it will kill pathogens, and the surrounding tissue will stay healthy.

Types and methods used in disinfection and sterilization

Disinfection involves using chemicals to eliminate pathogens that may cause infectious diseases, and the list includes formaldehyde, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, phenol, quaternary ammonium compound, iodine, chlorine, and chlorine compounds. Some disinfectants require that you dilute them before use, and some usually come in a ready to use concentration. The best way to determine is to know the product you are using and always read the product container’s instruction label.

The wide range of available sterilization methods necessitates a judicious selection of an elimination process. Atolani et al. (2020) some pathogens are effectively subjected to physical or chemical sterilants. Generally, the forms include dry heat, steam, radiation, and plasma. Radiation techniques are available in many conditions such as x-ray, gamma radiation, electron beam, white light, ultraviolet, and microwave. And chemical method uses a variety of chemicals in liquid and vapor forms.

Sterilizers are mostly used in hospitals (however, that does not mean that disinfectants are not disinfectants are applied everywhere). Sterilizers are best suited for the hospital environment; most of the equipment used for medical purposes requires sterilization as this is the only method that can eliminate spores.




Golin, A. P., Choi, D., & Ghahary, A. (2020). Hand sanitizers: a review of ingredients, mechanisms of action, modes of delivery, and efficacy against coronaviruses. American journal of infection control48(9), 1062-1067.

Atolani, O., Baker, M. T., Adeyemi, O. S., Olanrewaju, I. R., Hamid, A. A., Ameen, O. M., … & Usman, L. A. (2020). COVID-19: Critical discussion on the applications and implications of chemicals in sanitizers and disinfectants. EXCLI Journal19, 785.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevention of Coronavirus Disease (2019). (COVID-19). Available online: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/prevention.html.

Indrei, L. L., Raftu, G., Debita, M., & Esanu, I. (2019). The role of chemical substances in the assessment of the hygienic and sanitary conditions from medical practices. Revista de Chimie70(2).

CDC. Introduction, Methods, Definition of Terms. Guideline for Disinfection and Sterilization in Healthcare Facilities (2008) https://www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/disinfection/introduction.html

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