Cold and Flu Season Approaches

picture of janitor disinfecting a handrail

Clean, Sanitize, or Disinfect?

As cold and flu season approaches, you should focus on how your janitorial team in keeping your facility safe.   Do they clean, sanitize and disinfect?


  • Reduces germs, dirt, and impurities by removing them from surfaces or objects.  Dirt and organic material make some disinfectants less effective, so cleaning is necessary before disinfecting in most cases.
  • Works by using soap or detergent and water to physically remove germs from surfaces. This process does not necessarily kill germs.
  • Lowers the risk of spreading infection by washing germs down the drain.
  • Has been shown to remove up to 98% of bacteria and 93% of viruses from surfaces using microfiber and water in tests published by the EPA.
  • Removes the food and water that allow germs to survive and reproduce.
  • Removes dust, molds, irritants, and allergens that can trigger asthma symptoms.


Sanitizing is the use of a chemical product or device (like a dishwasher or a steam mop) that reduces the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a level considered safe by public health standards or requirements. Sanitizing kills most germs but not all of them.

  • For food service, a sanitizer should reduce the number of germs on a surface by 99.999% within 30 seconds.
  • For hard surfaces not used for food service the level should be at least 99.9%.
  • Sanitizing products should state on their label the surfaces they are intended to be used on.
  • Sanitizing does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs. Most sanitizers, as well as disinfectants, require a clean surface in order to be effective at killing germs.


Disinfecting uses chemicals to kill 99.999% of germs on hard, non-porous surfaces or objects.

  • Does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs;
  • Kills germs on contact (when the disinfectant sits visibly wet, or “dwells,” on the surface for a specified length of time) after the surface has been cleaned;
  • Only works on hard, nonporous surfaces. Carpets and upholstery and other porous surfaces cannot be sanitized or disinfected with a chemical product;
  • Is temporary! As soon as a surface has been touched or coughed, sneezed or breathed on, germs start growing on it again.

Some germs are very hard to kill, while others are easily killed by many disinfectants, and even plain soap.

Disinfectants are antimicrobial pesticides and must be registered with the U.S. EPA and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) or similar agencies in other states.

Some devices can be used to disinfect; for example machines that apply steam to surfaces. These devices are very effective, work quickly, and use no chemicals. Some are mops and others look like a canister vacuum with attachments for use on different surfaces. They can also disinfect surfaces that chemical disinfectants cannot, such as upholstery and carpets. Dust mites that live in these surfaces are also eliminated by these devices.

Because disinfectants are pesticides designed to kill or inactivate germs, you should make sure you need them for the specific task. The overuse and misuse of these products is a growing public health and environmental concern. Studies have found that the use of some disinfectant products is creating microbes that can mutate into forms that are resistant to particular disinfectants or that become superbugs. These resistant germs are also harder to kill with antibiotics.

Incorrectly using a disinfectant may kill the weaker germs, but the more resistant germs survive. Incorrect use includes

  • disinfecting a dirty surface;
  • wiping or rinsing the disinfectant off the surface before the recommended dwell (contact) time is over;
  • not using the recommended dilution ratio (not concentrated enough);
  • using a combination disinfectant/cleaner without first removing visible dirt from the surface.

What are antimicrobials?

Antimicrobial products kill or slow the spread of microorganisms. Microorganisms include bacteria, viruses, protozoans, and fungi such as mold and mildew.  You may find antimicrobial products in your home, workplace, or school.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates antimicrobial products as pesticides, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates antimicrobial products as drugs/antiseptics. As pesticides, antimicrobial products are used on objects such as countertops, toys, grocery carts, and hospital equipment. As antiseptics, antimicrobial products are used to treat or prevent diseases on people, pets, and other living things.

If a product shows “EPA” anywhere on the label, you know it\’s a pesticide and NOT meant for use on the body. This fact sheet will focus on antimicrobials used as pesticides.

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