By Stephen Lawson, COO of Aseptic Health, LLC and Certified Clinically Clean® Specialist
We’ve touched on this subject before in DisinfecTips, but I’d like to take a deeper dive into the difference between products that disinfect, sanitize and clean. I’ll also take a broad-brush explanation on the subject of sterilizing.
General cleaning can be accomplished with a variety of products on the market, from vinegar to dish soap to hydrogen peroxide to pine and lemon scented cleaners for specific purposes. General cleaning is primarily for appearance sake, but it can also be for health sake in that general cleaning keeps biofilms from growing. Biofilms harbor bacteria. If you really want to clean for optimum health, you’ll need a stronger product.
Stronger Cleaners Are Regulated By The EPA
At the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), products used to kill viruses and bacteria on surfaces are registered as antimicrobial pesticides.
Many products that are both sanitizers and disinfectants are registered with the EPA because they’ve been lab tested against both standards. Those standards are:
Sanitizing describes the act of reducing the bacterial population on a surface by a significant number especially in kitchens. Sanitizers are the base level of antimicrobials for public health and are a 3 log reduction. (More about that later.)
Disinfecting is much stronger and will kill and prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi. Some, but not all, disinfectants can also kill viruses. For this reason—as you might imagine—there are different levels of disinfectants—limited, broad-spectrum and Hospital grade.
Levels of Disinfectants
Limited disinfectants are effective against a specific group of microorganisms such as gram-positive Staphylococcus aureus or gram-negative Salmonella enterica bacteria.
Broad-spectrum (or General) disinfectants are effective against both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria (as above), and they are used in residential, commercial, institutional and other sites.
The strongest level of disinfectants are called Hospital disinfectants. These do everything limited and broad-spectrum disinfectants do in addition to being effective against the nosocomial bacterial pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This is a bacterium you’re definitely going to need to kill if you’re cleaning in hospitals, clinics, dental offices or other health care related facilities.
When using these products, follow directions, adhering closely to the amount of contact time needed to kill a bacteria or virus.
Whether sanitizing or disinfecting, it is very important to read the label Directions For Use to determine how long the surface must remain wet in order to kill organisms. Some viruses can be eliminated in seconds, others take minutes. Bacteria can sometimes take up to 10 minutes to kill. That means you have to leave the surface wet for a full 10 minutes.
Sterilization is critical to infection control and is widely used in hospitals on medical and surgical, instruments and equipment.
Types of sterilizers include autoclaves (steam under pressure) and dry heat ovens, used primarily for sterilizing medical instruments. Or sterilization by chemical means such as low temperature gas, ethylene oxide; or a liquid chemical sterilant for delicate instruments that cannot withstand high temperatures.
In the cleaning industry, the rating system for measuring a product’s efficacy for pathogen reduction is known as a log kill rate.
The bleach label says that it kills 99.9%, or a 3-log. A kill log measures a disinfectant’s (exponential) effectiveness. A 3-log would mean that out of 10,000,000 bacteria, 10,000 bacteria are left behind. Not only do these 10,000 bacteria reproduce, they start to build immunity to many disinfecting products. So, as they replicate, they are stronger and more dangerous. A hospital grade disinfectant kills 99.9999%, or a 6-log, leaving only 10 bacteria behind when starting at 10,000,000 bacteria similar to above. In this scenario, the 6-log kills 1,000X more bacteria than the 3-log.
Different log kills may be required for different applications. EPA guidelines are higher for disinfectants and lower for sanitizers.