Disinfection 101—Are You Covering the Basics?

Proper disinfection matches the correct protocol with the right disinfectant chemicals

Disinfection 101

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for robust disinfection processes in facilities across all industries. Whether you’re new to disinfection or it is a familiar and necessary part of your cleaning routine, the pressure is on to make sure you are disinfecting both efficiently and effectively.

Cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, sterilizing, oh my!

It is not uncommon to see the word cleaning used in place of sanitizing or to hear disinfecting mistaken for sterilizing. While these terms are related, they shouldn’t be used interchangeably—they require different processes, tools, and chemicals to achieve different results. Understanding the basics of each will help you make the best decisions for your facility and achieve your health and safety goals.


Cleaning does not claim to remove or kill pathogens on a surface; instead, it revolves around aesthetics. This process removes soils such as dirt, dust, and blood off a surface, priming it for disinfection and restoring its appearance to how it looked when it was first bought or installed. 


At a minimum, sanitizing removes or kills 99.9% of select bacteria on a surface. Sanitizers do not kill viruses such as the coronavirus. Unlike disinfectants, however, some sanitizers can be used to remove germs on porous, soft surfaces including bedding, padding, carpet, and upholstery.


Disinfecting uses chemicals that have a minimum of a 6-log kill rate or that reduce pathogens by 99.9999%, further mitigating people’s exposure to harmful microorganisms, including spores and viruses like the coronavirus. Compared to cleaning and sanitizing, disinfection removes and kills more pathogens.


Sterilizing removes and eradicates 100% of microbes on a surface. The sterilization process is used on health care equipment that may enter the human body and on nonporous surfaces, such as operating room tables, that need to be completely free of pathogens.

With this clear understanding of the differences between cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing, let’s focus on disinfection.

Killing and removing pathogens

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approves a disinfectant through a series of tests and validation methods, which include assessing a disinfectant’s efficacy against a pathogen. Each cleaning chemical has a different dwell time, or contact time, referenced on its label. This is the amount of time the product needs to remain wet on a surface to completely disinfect it.

When working in a fast-paced setting such as a retail facility, for instance, cleaning staff may be tempted to complete tasks as quickly as possible. However, failing to abide by a disinfectant’s dwell time risks exposing guests and staff to potentially harmful pathogens that don’t get killed—and also opens up the facility to liability issues stemming from inadequate disinfection.

But killing a pathogen is only the first step. Once a pathogen dies, its body may be left behind, creating what is known as bio-load on the surface. As bio-load accumulates, it develops an environment for other bacteria and microbes to flourish in, making future disinfection more difficult. Physical or mechanical cleaning can help remove bio-load left on the surface.

Better, more efficient disinfection

Facilities must have a plan that outlines how to consistently disinfect high-touch surfaces and how to use chemicals appropriately. Using more chemicals does not equate to a better clean. Rather, using the appropriate amount of chemical with the proper dilution is the key to effective disinfection, along with precleaning the surface and adhering to dwell times. Proper disinfection matches the correct protocol with the right disinfectant chemicals.

Precleaning is the physical, mechanical act of cleaning a surface of dirt, dust, bodily fluids, and bio-load before using chemicals. For a chemical to touch a pathogen for the full dwell time, it must first have complete access to that microbe. Precleaning allows for that.

At the end of the day, whether the products are meant to remove dirt or disinfect a surface, they must be used according to the directions on their labels. Making an effort to preclean and follow dwell times ensures you are getting the most out of your chemicals while keeping individuals in your facility safe.

As with all chemicals, disinfectants come with their own risks, including the potential for chemical exposure, accidents, and damage to surfaces. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified disinfection efforts across the board, so these risks must be assessed frequently. Disinfection will continue to become increasingly important, and understanding the basics of the process—and implementing sound protocols—will create a safe environment for everyone in your facility.

Posted On September 30, 2020

Zach Doebler

Senior application engineer for 3M’s Commercial Solutions division

Zach Doebler is a senior application engineer for 3M’s Commercial Solutions division and has been supporting its cleaning and disinfecting solutions for the past six years.

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