The two major ways to protect yourself during the COVID-19 pandemic—washing your hands regularly (or sanitizing them when you’re not near soap and water) and cleaning commonly-touched surfaces—seem pretty self-explanatory. That is, until you’re trying to decide which types of products to use.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting all have different definitions:
Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and other impurities from surfaces, but doesn’t necessarily kill them.
Sanitizing lowers the number of germs on surfaces or objects—either by killing them or removing them—to a safe level, according to public health standards or requirements.
Disinfecting kills germs on surfaces or objects.
And according the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines sanitizers as chemical products that can kill at least 99.9% of germs on hard surfaces (that percentage should go up to 99.99% of germs on surfaces used for food service). Disinfectants are, again, stronger, killing 99.999% of germs on hard, non-porous surfaces or objects.
The difference really boils down to the fact that sanitizing solutions aren’t as strong as disinfecting solutions. But some products can be both sanitizers and disinfectants, such as concentrated bleach: It can be a disinfectant, but if it’s very diluted, it might be a sanitizer that is, it kills less bacteria and viruses.
So, when should you sanitize and when should you disinfect?
Let’s start with food: You don’t need to wipe your groceries down with Clorox wipes (or any other disinfectants) or a sanitizer. All you have to do is clean them (using water, but no soap) when you bring them in your home.
You want to save disinfectants for bigger messes or highly-touched areas of your home, like doorknobs, toilet handles, and even sinks. Countertops, however, is where things get tricky—if you’re using any surfaces for food preparation, it’s best to sanitize those, so any chemical residue isn’t as powerful and potentially harmful.
As for your own hands, it may be tempting to wipe them off with a disinfecting wipe once you use it on other surfaces, but you really shouldn’t: That can be very dangerous for your skin.
Ultimately, you can go by this simple rule: “Wipe off surfaces, [but] wash your hands.” That’s because “good” bacteria live on your skin, so when you apply something that kills basically all the bacteria on your hands, you’re killing off some that are actually helpful and natural. However, it’s important to remember that hand sanitizer is fine if you’re out in public, but it’s always better to wash hands with soap and water (for at least 20 seconds!) if that’s an option.
While COVID-19 has definitely triggered a huge uptick in people buying and using more sanitizing and disinfecting products, just remember to use them correctly and responsibly.