Picture this: a busy restaurant, a long wait list and a newly-vacant table that needs to be ready for the next guest. The staff are likely clearing the table and trying to quickly turn it around, cleaning and sanitizing the surface as fast as possible. But, are they doing it correctly and efficiently? Maybe in some cases, but during a busy rush hour, possibly not—and the difference lies in the meaning of three distinct, seemingly similar words: cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting.

The foodservice industry is only one example of where employees and managers need to be cognizant of the distinction. So, what is the difference? While each industry may have different challenges, the division between these three tasks depends more on what exactly you’re trying to accomplish and where. Solutions will certainly vary depending on the environment, but below are some key differences.

Cleaning Think of a triangle. The bottom is the broadest, most basic level—the lowest in the hierarchy. At its elementary definition, cleaning is used to remove dirt or debris from a surface and is typically completed with a cloth or wipe in conjunction with a detergent, soap or solvent.

Is that enough? Perhaps for the short term, but in the long run it’s essential to carry out the full regimen of cleaning, sanitizing and possibly even disinfecting. Let’s look at the fast-paced restaurant environment again. It may be tough to sanitize after every customer visit, but it is important to clean tables after each customer visit. If there is a layer of dried ketchup, for example, that debris would serve as a barrier for any sanitizer to be used. Dirt needs to be removed before moving onto step two.

Sanitizing Moving up on the triangle, sanitizing falls in the middle layer. This includes removing microbes from a surface and killing bacteria. By definition, the word “sanitize” means you are killing specific types of bacteria in a specified amount of time. In the U.S., Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certification is required any time a manufacturer makes this claim. End users and customers want to make sure the sanitizing product they’re purchasing is registered with the EPA.

For sanitizers to be effective, they have to be mixed to proper concentrations. For a typical server quat bucket, this is either 200 or 400 parts per million (PPM). If it dips below that level, the solution is considered ineffective. Additionally, staff should be aware that once the sanitizer is in the quat bucket, it will, over time, become contaminated. As debris in the bucket builds up, it breaks down the strength of the sanitizer. As a general rule of thumb, check the sanitizer with test strips periodically.

Finally, when sanitizing it’s important to know how long a sanitizer has to dwell on a surface before being wiped off. For food contact sanitizers to be effective, for example, they must dwell on the table for a minimum of 60 seconds. Drying table surfaces prematurely with a paper towel or bar mop defeats the purpose. Dwell time is perhaps more important for disinfectants, however—which brings us to the top of our triangle.

Disinfecting Whereas sanitizing involves killing bacteria, disinfectants are considerably stronger, and can kill both bacteria and viruses. This task is more closely associated with a healthcare environment as opposed to foodservice, but can be applicable in places like washrooms, or your local health club.

The key difference in sanitizing vs. disinfecting is the type of chemical involved and how long it’s left on a surface. For many disinfectants, 10 minutes is the appropriate dwell time. But, to ensure proper disinfection, be sure to read instructions on the chemical product.

To keep a hygienic and safe business, make sure to complete the full regimen, moving up the triangle from cleaning to sanitizing and disinfecting, as appropriate. The key point—always read directions when dealing with products.