Best Practices of Safe and Effective Cleaning and Disinfecting for Reopening

A person wearing yellow gloves spraying cleaning liquid on the table

The coronavirus pandemic is not over. Many states have now begun to reopen their economies. More businesses and workplaces are being allowed to operate by following proper health and safety guidelines.

Reopening requires all of us to move forward together by practicing social distancing and other daily habits to reduce our risk of exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.

The CDC updated a cleaning and disinfecting guide that includes proper cleaning materials and how to determine areas that need cleaning. For more information, see the CDC’s website.

An article from The Perry Post shared some helpful information on the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting.

Cleaning, Sanitizing, Disinfecting: What’s the Difference?

Remove Germs, Dirt, and Impurities by CLEANING.

With a standard cleaning product, you are physically removing the dirt and germs from surfaces, but you’re not necessarily killing them. However, simply by removing them, you’re lowering their numbers, and thus reducing the risk of spreading the infection.

Products like Windex and “All-Purpose Cleaners” fall under this category.

Lowering the Number of Germs to a Safe Level by SANITIZING

This is a step beyond cleaning. Sanitizing surfaces will kill a greater amount of the bacteria and is required for any surface that comes into contact with food.

The CDC explains that “a sanitizer is a chemical that kills 99.999% of the specific test bacteria in 30 seconds under the conditions of the test.” Therefore, while sanitizers can kill the majority of certain kinds of bacteria, sanitization products and techniques alone cannot eliminate all viruses.

Purell Hand Sanitizer is an example of this type of product. Many restaurants use ‘sanitizers’ to clean dishes, as opposed to a harsh disinfecting chemical.

DISINFECTING Kills Germs by Using Chemicals

Disinfecting is a stronger decontamination method than sanitizating or cleaning alone, this is because of its ability to destroy the pathogens.

Disinfectants are products that destroy all organisms in 10 minutes during the AOAC Use Dilution Test, a test regulated by the EPA to determine the efficiency of disinfectants.

In places where disinfecting is required, such as a medical facility, it’s more important to kill ALL germs, even if it takes longer, than it is to kill MOST of the germs quickly.

Safer Disinfectant Options

  • Ethanol, isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol)
  • Hydrogen Peroxide
  • L-Lactic Acid, Citric Acid

Which Option Should I Consider? Sanitize or Disinfect?

Before you do either, you should always clean visible debris from the surface. Be sure to follow all manufacturer directions for any product you use, including any rinses that may be required.

Sanitizing is appropriate for food contact surface sanitizing,or on toys that children may place in their mouths.

Disinfecting is appropriate for use on high-touch, non-porous surfaces such as counter tops, door and cabinet handles, toilets, and restroom sinks.

University of Washington Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences made a fact sheet which provides best practices for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting surfaces to prevent the spread of disease while minimizing harmful chemical exposures.

Best Practices for Safe and Effective Cleaning and Disinfecting

  1. Develop a Plan

Develop and maintain a set of written standard operating procedures and criteria for when to clean, sanitize or disinfect. This should include schedules for routine cleaning operations and activities to be performed periodically.

  • Start by Asking: “Is it Necessary to Sanitize or Disinfect?”
  • If it’s not, use fragrance free soap/detergent and water or an all-purpose cleaner with Safer Choice, Green Seal or Ecologo labels. Soap inactivates the Coronavirus by dissolving the lipid (fatty) membrane that envelops the virus and allows it to stick to our cells. Soap and water, with microfiber cloths or mops can also get rid of 99% of bacteria.
  • Routinely Clean all Frequently Touched Surfaces

These surfaces include workstations, counter tops, light switches, railings, doorknobs, and equipment (such as steering wheels and machinery). Use the cleaning agents that are regularly used in these areas, following directions on the label. Select products with Safer Choice, Green Seal or Ecologo labels. Use a clean surface of the cloth to prevent cross contamination. Alcohol wipes can be used on electronics.

  • Select a Disinfectant or Sanitizer That Contain Less Hazardous Ingredients

If you determine disinfection is necessary, use products registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19:

Look for DfE (Designed for the Environment) products – the Responsible Purchasing Network has made it easy for you! If none are available, look for products containing the safer active ingredients mentioned above.

Avoid sodium hypochlorite (bleach) and quaternary ammonium compounds, if possible; these ingredients can cause asthma. Let disinfectants stay glistening wet on the surface or air dry for the right dwell or contact time on the product’s label instructions. Otherwise, resistant germs will remain and grow, which can lead to “superbugs.”

  • Provide Employees With Information and Training

Remember, employers must ensure workers are trained on the hazards of the cleaning chemicals used in the workplace in accordance with OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200). People need to know the right way to use the products and know the symptoms of possible harm. Protective equipment — including gloves — needs to be appropriate for the product. If information isn’t on the safety data sheet, call the manufacturer for specific glove materials, or ask an occupational health specialist.

Use accepted best practices and technology for cleaning. For example, perform restroom cleaning from high to low, toward the doorway, and ensure dry cleaning tasks performed prior to wet cleaning tasks.

  • Evaluate

Evaluate the plan. Get feedback from people using the products and from those in the spaces where they are used.

The CDC also recommends developing and implementing policies and procedures for workforce “contact tracing,” which involves identifying who may have been exposed to employees with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 during the infectious period.

As a result, other employees and third parties (customers, vendors, contractors and others) may need to be notified that they have potentially been exposed to the virus.


  1. University of Washington Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences Continuing Education Programs. Safer Cleaning, Sanitizing and Disinfecting Strategies to Reduce and Prevent COVID-19 Transmission
  2. The Perry Post. What’s the Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting?

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