Many food service operations are struggling with the difference between sanitizing, disinfecting, and when each is appropriate for their customers. In order to choose the proper product, it is important to understand the differences and proper uses of disinfectants and sanitizers. Disinfectants and sanitizers have different applications but are both designed to kill microorganisms.


First, sanitizers are used on food-contact surfaces and soft surfaces, and disinfectants are used on all hard surfaces that are not considered food-contact surfaces. Another difference is that disinfectants are used to destroy or irreversibly inactivate the microorganisms listed on their label, which may include bacteria, fungi, and viruses, but not necessarily spores. Sanitizers are used to reduce, but not necessarily eliminate, bacteria from the inanimate environment to levels considered safe as determined by public health codes or regulations.


Disinfectants also tend to be used at much higher concentrations and usually have a longer contact time. Sanitizers tend to be used at lower concentrations for a shorter period of time. No perfumes are allowed in food-contact sanitizers, whereas perfumes are often used in disinfectants.

What’s the Difference?

It is important to note that sanitizers are not effective against viruses and fungi.

Sanitizers for food-contact surfaces must reduce the bacterial count by 5 logs or 99.999%. Examples of sanitizers include halide compounds such as iodophors and chlorine-based chemicals. It is important to note that sanitizers are not effective against viruses and fungi. The most commonly used sanitizers in food production environments are chlorine, quaternary ammonium, and iodine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) clearly state-approved concentrations of sanitizers in their respective regulations. Too high or too low of a concentration is a violation of these regulations.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates both sanitizers and disinfectants. The EPA maintains a list of registered sanitizers and disinfectants on their website.

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