The Surprising Difference Between Cleaning and Disinfection


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Cleaning and disinfection are both important for preventing infections from spreading in healthcare settings.

But cleaning is not the same as disinfection.

Let’s explore the importance of cleaning and disinfection, and the difference between them, with the help of the CDC’s Project Firstline, a training and education collaborative designed to ensure all healthcare workers have the infection control knowledge and understanding they need and deserve to protect themselves, their patients, and their coworkers.

What is Cleaning?

Cleaning removes things like dust, dirt, grime, and other spills, smears, and everyday messes from surfaces. Cleaning can also remove things that are not visible, like germs.

“You can think of cleaning as removing the ‘gunk’ that you can see on surfaces,” said Dr. Abigail Carlson, an Infectious Diseases physician with the CDC, as part of CDC Project Firstline’s Inside Infection Control series. “It also removes some things that you don’t see, like germs. When you clean your house, you’re getting rid of dust, dirt, grime, and all the other spills, smears, and stuff that happens in everyday [life].”

In healthcare settings – just like a house – dust and dirt contain skin cells, dust mites, hair, and debris, which can get into the environment and onto patients’ wounds, onto burns, and in your mouth. Spills and smears – body fluids, blood, urine, and sweat – also happen in healthcare.

“We need all of that to be cleaned up,” Carlson said. “It’s common sense that cleaning is important in healthcare, and sometimes cleaning is enough.”

“But sometimes, disinfection is necessary.”

What is Disinfection?

Disinfection is a different step than cleaning that kills germs on surfaces or objects.

“Disinfection shouldn’t come before cleaning. They either happen at the same time with a single product, or cleaning comes first in the two-step process of cleaning and disinfection,” Carlson said.

contact time for disinfection cleaning hospital bed with gloves and maskIf a surface isn’t clean, disinfection might not work.

“The [disinfection] product might not be able to get to the germs because they’re covered in other things,” Carlson said. “If there’s dirt or spills or smears on the surface … you might spread that around while you’re disinfecting, because the disinfectant won’t necessarily pick that up and clean.”

Removing and killing germs is important in healthcare settings because bacteria, viruses, and other germs can get into patients’ bodies, including those who are ill and weak.

“When our patients are ill and weak, they’re more likely to get really sick from germs we find in healthcare, so you can see why cleaning and disinfection are both so important,” Carlson said.

How You Can Help Address Infection Control and Prevention?

Healthcare workers can access more information about infection prevention and control in healthcare settings by visiting resources from the CDC’s Project Firstline.

Project Firstline creates videos and shareable images, web buttons, posters, and print materials. They also have facilitator toolkits to help workers lead trainings even if they are not an infection control expert.

Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio is working with the National Hispanic Medical Association to bring Project Firstline content to frontline healthcare workers to protect themselves, their facilities, and their patients (from Latino and all communities) from infectious disease threats.

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“Physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers in our hospitals where so many Latino patients with infections from diabetes, especially, are being treated, are very careful about hand-washing, wearing masks and gloves and reducing transmission of infections,” said Dr. Elena V. Rios, President and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association. “NHMA is a partner with Project Firstline to encourage physicians and healthcare workers in our community to increase awareness about the infection control rules so patients can get well faster.”

Learn more about infection control and training opportunities at Project Firstline.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a collaboration between Salud America!, the National Hispanic Medical Association, and the CDC’s Project Firstline. To find resources training materials, and other tools to bolster knowledge and practice of infection control, visit Project Firstline and view Salud America!’s infection control content.

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