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Cleaning vs. Sterilization vs. Sanitizing: What’s the Difference?

scrubbing for sanitization

Using a scrub brush to clean a sink

Everyone loves a clean space—but this year, property and business owners need to think carefully about what that really means. COVID-19 has made it more critical than ever to keep your facilities germ-free. If you want to stay safe and comply with current health regulations, you’ll need to know the difference between cleaning, sterilization, and sanitizing.

Each of these techniques has its place when cleaning your home or office, but the differences between them are essential—and too easily lost on people who don’t tidy for a living. That’s why we’re here to show you precisely what cleaning, sterilizing, and sanitizing involve and help you can choose the proper method to protect your environment.

Language Matters: Cleaning, Sterilization, and Sanitizing Defined

While these terms might be used interchangeably by amateurs, professional cleaners know they each mean different things—and we’re not the only ones. Regulatory bodies such as the Canadian Institute of Food Safety also define these terms differently and have specific criteria for the situations that require each method.

Cleaning infographic


Cleaning is the most general of these terms. To clean something simply means to remove any visible grime from it. In a commercial context, cleaning often involves the removal of:

  • Dirt or soil
  • Chemical residue
  • Allergens (such as mold, pollen, and animal hair or fur)

Cleaning can be performed in numerous ways, many of which involve wiping the object or surface in question with a mild chemical solution. Items that should be cleaned regularly include:

  • Work surfaces (including counters and floors)
  • Tools and equipment
  • Kitchenware and utensils

  sterilization infographic


Sterilization refers to completely eradicating any microorganisms on an object or surface. Most commercial businesses are not required to sterilize their environment or equipment—however, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Health Canada does recommend disinfecting public spaces, including workplaces. To disinfect means to remove most or all harmful organisms (such as viruses or bacteria) from a given object or surface.

Sterilizing can be performed in numerous ways, including:

  • Heat (via steam)
  • Ethylene oxide gas (for heat-and-moisture-sensitive objects or surfaces)
  • Hydrogen peroxide gas plasma
  • Peracetic acid immersion
  • Ozone

Complete sterilization is usually performed on the following objects or environments:

  • Hospital operating rooms
  • Surgical equipment
  • Any other medical devices designed to make contact with sterile body tissues or fluids

Sanitizing infographic


To sanitize an object means to lower the number of microorganisms on it to a safe level. By this definition, cleaning, sterilizing, and disinfecting are all types of sanitizing—making the criteria for proper sanitization somewhat subjective. Fortunately, most regulatory bodies provide specific guidelines for sanitizing commercial areas to their satisfaction, and most governments have established similar recommendations for residential environments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

disinfecting a handle

How to Sanitize Effectively in the Age of COVID-19

Properly sanitizing your business or workplace is always important, but it matters more than ever during the ongoing pandemic. Diseases are less likely to spread in sanitized environments—which keeps families safer and businesses open.

Health Canada provides the following recommendations for sanitizing workplaces and other public spaces during the current pandemic:

  • Use a product that cleans and disinfects simultaneously, such as commercially-available disinfectant cleaning solutions or wipes.
  • When cleaning hard surfaces, make sure to use approved hard-surface disinfectants.
  • Remain aware of current occupational health and safety requirements.
  • Review the WHIMIS requirements for hazardous workplace materials.
  • Clean all surfaces before using a disinfectant.
  • Read the manufacturer’s instructions on every cleaning and disinfecting product to ensure safe usage.
  • Wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after cleaning anything with gloves.
  • Use a 60% alcohol-based sanitizer in situations where soap and water are unavailable.
  • Use damp cleaning methods instead of dry ones whenever possible to keep particles from drifting into the air.
  • Store disposable cleaning items in lined garbage bags before disposing of them with other waste.
  • Wash reusable cleaning items regularly with soap and hot water.
  • Clean and disinfect any objects or surfaces that people commonly touch with their hands more often than usual.
  • Clean and disinfect shared spaces (including kitchens and bathrooms) more often than usual.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning any electronic devices (and use 70% alcohol when possible).

Remember that occupational health and safety guidelines for your specific industry and area may differ from others. In most cases, the best way to ensure adequate sanitization for your environment is by calling professional cleaners who are up-to-date on current regulations and have the right equipment to do the job correctly.

A Sanitary Space is a Healthy One

Cleaning is vital, but it isn’t always enough. Now that you know the differences between cleaning, sterilization, and sanitizing, you’ll be able to take steps that keep your environment healthy until the end of the pandemic and beyond.

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