What is the Difference Between Cleaning, Disinfection and Sterilisation?

September 12, 2014

what is the... cleaningCleaning, Disinfection and Sterilisation are three terms used a lot when discussing infection control. In this blog I will explore what they mean and the differences in the terminology.


Cleaning is the process of achieving and maintaining an area to a standard deemed visually free from debris which can include dirt, food, faeces, blood, saliva and other body secretions. It is the removal of foreign material from areas and objects. Cleaning reduces amount of organic matter that contributes to the proliferation of bacteria and viruses. The actual process of cleaning is achieved with the use of aids such as cleaning tools and cleaning agents. Cleaning tools such as mops, vacuum cleaners, cloths, floor scrubbers are used to achieve a state of visual cleanliness.

Cleaning is a simple easy method using the two essential components of cleaning, namely, friction and the use of fluid. Friction through rubbing and scrubbing the soiled area and fluids generally water and a soap solution are the first stage of cleaning. Washing is one way of achieving physical cleanliness, usually with water and often some kind of soap or detergent.

Cleaning Agents

Cleaning agents are substances which come in many forms but generally are liquids, powders, sprays, or granules. Some cleaning agents can kill bacteria and clean at the same time. Cleaning is important because it prevents the spread of dirt and contaminants to oneself and others. It is about removing dirt, including stains, dust, bad smells and clutter on surfaces.

Clean First

Thorough cleaning is required before disinfection and sterilisation, because Inorganic and organic materials that remain on the surfaces of clinical instruments may interfere with the effectiveness of disinfection and sterilisation. The disinfection or sterilisation process will be less effective or ineffective, if soiled materials are left to dry or bake onto the clinical instruments.


Disinfection is the process or act of destroying pathogenic microorganisms and removes most organisms present on surfaces. Disinfectants are antimicrobial agents that are applied to non-living objects to destroy microorganisms that are living on the objects. Disinfectants work by destroying the cell wall of microbes or interfering with the metabolism.

Type of Disinfectants

There are a wide range of disinfectants used today. One of the most cost-effective disinfectants used is chlorine bleach (a 5% solution of sodium hypochlorite), which is effective against most common pathogens, including difficult organisms found in a healthcare setting, such as antibiotic-resistant strains of staphylococcus, fungi, and hepatitis B and C.

Disinfection does not necessarily kill all microorganisms, especially resistant bacterial spores; it is less effective than sterilisation.


Sterilisation is a term referring to any process that eliminates or kills all forms of life, including transmissible agents such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and spore forms.

Ways of Achieving Sterilisation

Sterilisation can be achieved by applying chemicals, high pressure, heat, irradiation, and filtration or a combination.

Recommendation for continuous good practice

As a service provider, whether you are a care home environment, dental or GP surgery, cleaning, disinfection and sterilisation will be used at different times within your establishment. It is recommended that you identify and record what requires cleaning, disinfection and sterilisation and how it is achieved. Assess who is responsible for ensuring cleaning, disinfection and sterilisation is done. Ensure that personnel, where required, are competent in cleaning, disinfection and sterilisation by providing instruction, information and training as appropriate. One example of what to record is High Touch Surfaces. High Touch Surfaces such as toilets, commode chairs, computer keyboards, chairs, bedrails, call bells and telephones must be cleaned and then disinfected on a regular basis.

QCS Policies

QCS have polices such as the Infection Control Policy and Procedure that will provide guidance on areas of cleaning and disinfection.

In the next blog the importance of monitoring and surveillance for infection control purposes will be explored.

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Sally Beck

QCS Expert Health and Safety Contributor


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