Knowing your Household Cleaners

Perennial Tips

Updated 2/17/2021

With many Americans paying particular attention to their cleaning habits over the last few months, many questions have arisen related to the difference between some common household cleaning product terms. In this post, our Ph.D. scientists will define and clarify some of the jargon used in the field.

A cleaner is a formula primarily designed to remove dirt and grime from a surface. True cleaners, however, are not designed to eliminate, kill, or treat microorganisms. It is important to note that the term “cleaner” is not synonymous with “sanitizer” nor “disinfectant”.

A surface sanitizer is a product or formula designed to reduce but not necessarily eliminate the amount of bacteria (or other microorganisms) on a non-porous surface.1 These products are only tested for efficacy against the microorganism(s) listed on the label; in the US, this is based on testing requirements set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is important to note that according to the EPA, no surface sanitizer-only product has an approved virus claim. It is because of this that these products are not recommended for use against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.2

A surface disinfectant is a product or formula intended for use on hard non-porous surfaces that is primarily deigned to kill or otherwise irreversibly inactivate1 microorganisms (e.g. illness-causing bacteria and viruses) when used as directed. These products are registered with the EPA and must undergo rigorous testing requirements in order to be approved for use.2 Disinfectant-only products are not designed to remove dirt/grime from a surface and may require a preclean of the surface to be optimally effective.3 When using a disinfectant, it is important to follow the directions on the label for contact time – the time a disinfectant product must make contact with a surface. Not adhering to the label instructions, particularly this time, may reduce the product’s effectiveness (and so not fully disinfect the surface). Many disinfectant products are also registered as a surface sanitizer since they have been tested with both standards.2 Products may have different instructions for each of these purposes.

Currently, there are many “all-in-one” products that are designed to act as 1) both a cleaner and a sanitizer, 2) a cleaner and a disinfectant, or 3) all three (cleaner, sanitizer, disinfectant). This means that these products are able to effectively remove dirt and grime from a variety of surface as well as being registered with the EPA as 1) a sanitizer, 2) a disinfectant, or 3) both a sanitizer and a disinfectant. Be sure to check the product label to see if the product claims to remove dirt and grime and claims to be a sanitizer or disinfectant. Each of these uses (clean, sanitize, disinfect) may have different instructions on the product label.

When selecting a cleaning product for use, be sure to thoroughly read the product’s label and follow the product directions to achieve the desired results. Cleaning a surface before using a sanitizer or disinfectant may allow the sanitizing and/or disinfecting product to work as intended.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to try a new product! Who knows? You might just like it!

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Sources:

1. https://extension.psu.edu/what-is-a-disinfectant-or-sanitizer

2. https://www.epa.gov/coronavirus/whats-difference-between-products-disinfect-sanitize-and-clean-surfaces

3. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2020-04/documents/disinfectants-onepager.pdf

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