Germs can spread from contaminated objects and surfaces. This can occur when a person touches a surface with germs and then touches their nose, mouth, or eyes. Cleaning and applying a sanitizer or disinfectant when needed keeps germs on surfaces to a minimum.
The words cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are often used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing.
- Cleaning means to physically remove dirt and grime from a surface by washing, scrubbing, and wiping with soap or detergent and water.
- Sanitizing means to reduce the number of germs on a surface to a safe level. Sanitizing is mainly used on food surfaces.
- Disinfecting means to kill almost all the germs on a surface.
Clean surfaces and objects before using a sanitizer or disinfectant.
Sanitizers and disinfectants are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Only products that have an EPA registration number on the label can make public health claims.
Using Safer Products
Some cleaning products that are safer for human health and the environment will have certification by agencies that test them for safety, such as Green Seal, Safer Choice, and Design for the Environment (DfE). Ingredients in products with these certifications are less likely to cause or trigger asthma or other long-term health problems.
Bleach is commonly used to sanitize and disinfect in early childhood programs because it is low-cost, easily available, and effective if used correctly. However, programs should be sure to use bleach carefully because it can irritate the skin and eyes, trigger asthma, affect breathing (even in people who don’t have asthma), damage clothing, and be corrosive. Bleach comes in different strengths, so it’s important to check the label for how much water to mix with the bleach before use. Bleach mixtures only work for a short time, so a new mixture should be prepared each day. Staff should check the label to make sure the bleach product is intended for sanitizing and disinfecting by looking for an EPA registration label. Laundry bleach, for example, is not an EPA-registered sanitizer or disinfectant.
Products with quaternary ammoniums (“quats”) or sodium hypochlorite (bleach) as the active ingredient can cause breathing problems. Programs should consider the health of staff and children when choosing a disinfectant.
Always follow the product’s directions on the label.
The label instructions on sanitizers and disinfectants will indicate:
- How long the product needs to remain wet on the surface (dwell or contact time)
- If it is ready to use or needs to be diluted
- Instructions for dilution, if needed
- Whether rinsing is needed
- A signal word like caution, warning, or danger
- Safety precautions
Tips and Strategies Related to Safe and Effective Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting
- Help staff to develop strategies to follow a routine schedule of cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting.
- Use only EPA-registered products to sanitize or disinfect.
- Use products according to label instructions for their intended purpose.
- Consider choosing products that are safer for people and the environment. Review Green Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting: A Toolkit for Early Care and Education to learn more.
- Treat urine, stool, blood, and body fluids (except for human milk) as potentially infectious. Clean up and disinfect surfaces soiled with body fluids immediately.
- Do not use antimicrobial pesticides around children.
- Have adequate ventilation during any cleaning, sanitizing, or disinfecting to prevent children and staff from inhaling potentially toxic fumes.
- Store cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting products out of children’s reach.
- Give information to families on poisoning prevention.
- Provide staff with access to the Safety Data Sheets(SDS) for all chemicals used in your program as required by OSHA. The SDS explain the risk of exposure to products and safety precautions.
- Train staff, including custodial staff, on safe and effective use of the cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting products in your program. Share these resources for child care programs (available in multiple languages):
Resource Type: Article
National Centers: Health, Behavioral Health, and Safety
Audience: Directors and Managers
Last Updated: June 15, 2023