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Cleaning vs Sanitizing vs Disinfecting


cleaning vs sanitizing vs disinfecting

With the current situation regarding COVID-19 there has been a lot of misinformation on cleaning. We made our post about how steam cleaning isn’t really sanitizing, and that got a lot of interest. So I wanted to make a quick article breaking down the difference between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting as some people are using these words interchangeably. These are as classified by the CDC, who knows a few things about this.


Cleaning is what you are doing most of the time as a detailer. You are using a cleaner or soap to pick up and remove the germs from the surface. You aren’t “killing” most of the germs but you are removing many of them from the surface, which is still a huge plus, as you are lowering the risk of spreading them.


Sanitizing kills germs, but does not remove them. Instead, it reduces the amount of germs on the surface to a safe level. So it is best to clean first, then sanitize. This is why when you use hand sanitizer your hand can feel kind of gross. Since there are no surfactants like in soap to lift off the germs, the liquid of the sanitizer just moves the dirt around, but at least it kills the germs! According to the EPA, for something to be considered sanitized, it must have reduced the amount of bacteria on the surface by 99.9%. This often requires some dwell time before you remove the product to effectively get to this number, usually around 10-15 seconds. If you want to sanitize the interior you can easily use the standard sanitizing wipes, test first of course, and make sure you wipe it clean.

For the exterior, since you can use so much more water to lift off the contamination during the cleaning process it is not as much of a concern to sanitize. You can still use sanitizing steps if you really want to on door handles and high traffic areas, but it will eat away at any protection you have.


Disinfecting is the germ-killing king. Like sanitizing, it kills germs but does not remove them, so it is best used after cleaning. However, the EPA defines a surfaced being disinfected by reducing the amount of bacteria by 99.999%. This may seem like a small number but is a huge difference in reducing the spread of bacteria, especially for places like hospitals where you need to reduce the risk as much as possible. The dwell time for disinfectants is much longer, usually 3-5 minutes. This, coupled with the chemicals usually being much harsher, do not mix well with detailing. They often would end up damaging the surface, either immediately or over time.

P&S has a new product P&S Surface Sanitizer. That was recently certified by the EPA! It is a thin spray that when left for 10 minutes will disinfect, be sure to test first before allowing it to dwell for 10 minutes on surfaces if this is the route you choose.

Hopefully, this helps you understand the differences better. Just keep to best practices, stay safe, and WASH YOUR HANDS!

Ian Martinez
Gloss Angeles
Irvine, CA
Instagram | YouTube

8 comments on Cleaning vs Sanitizing vs Disinfecting

  1. chris mcgill says:

    This is really good information. My delema here in NY is when to start detailing interiors again and what process and products to used. So a customers interior is truly disinfected and sanitized. We have dealerships advertising disinfecting people’s cars. I’m curious what they are using.

  2. Steve Anderson says:

    Contact Gene at metro tech out of Charlotte ref the above SKA Danville va

  3. Will Ting says:

    How come when it comes to our hands and body we’re only required to wash with soap. I’ve heard it explained that when it’s comes to covid 19 the cell membrane is fragile to soap and that it’s destroyed by waging our hands for 20 seconds.

    • Ian says:

      Hey Will, this is mainly about the technical meaning of the words. In regards to just soap, the issue in that process to car interior is sop requires a lot of water to flush out. That is not always possible on seats, dash buttons, alcantara, etc. However, on things like plastic door panels, plastic/leather steering wheels, etc the soap and water method can be very effective!

  4. Ian, great little artilce. Thank you for making a better understanding of the words and there meanings. I think in the next months we will see more and more detailers/car washer/dealerships will advertise some sort of disinfection cleaning packages. I personally would be very careful about how to advertise and very strictly educate what the customer can expect from those “disinfection package”. Most people don’t know that there steering has more bacteria than a toilet seat. Me for my part don’t advertise it through my website, yet. Will I? Yes in near future after I collected enough information to be on the safe and well educate site. My personal favorite product to go is GTechniq Tri-Clean ( https://www.detailedimage.com/GTechniq-M70/I2-Tri-Clean-P1722/5-L-S2/ ). I have been using it for over 2 years now and its a great cleaner, sanitizer and a very great additional odor eliminator/cleaner. It gives you a very light fresh scent and a clean feeling after you done with your project. Just wanted to share my thoughts. Thank you and stay healthy.

    • Ian says:

      Tri clean is awesome. Gtechniq actually just released a statement that it contains raw material that can combat and kill the coronavirus, when tested to the EN14476 standard!

  5. Scott Oropeza says:

    I’m a nurse working at a hospital with COVID-19 patients. Sometimes I take my wife’s RAV4 which has Toyota’s vinyl on seats. When I come home I wipe all the surfaces I touched including the front seats, dash, steering wheel, arm rest, etc.
    Sometimes I have to take my Tundra which has leather seats, steering wheel wrap and tranny knob . When I come home I disinfect this vehicle down as well, but I’m worried that the Clorox wipes are drying out the leather and will eventually ruin the seats and leather bits. Every other day I go out and put Meguiar’s Gold Class Leather Care nice and thick.
    Is there another product or tips to help save my leather? I really love my Tundra and want to take care of it.

    • Rodney Tatum says:

      First off thank you for all that you do, especially during these times.

      The product mentioned above GTechniq Tri-Clean can be used on most modern leather surfaces (perforated leather). I would test ofcourse for safety. The company has recently acknowledged the product can kill the virus. I would stop short of a guarantee or comparison to lysol as I don’t know the specifics of dwell time and if it is 99% or etc effective in doing so. With that said I do have that cleaner in my car at all times.

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