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The 7 Cleaning Terms You Need to Know Now

Unless you regularly channel an inner Felix Unger or Adrian Monk, you’ve probably struggled to sort through myriad messaging around cleanliness since the COVID-19 outbreak.

What does it really mean to deep clean? Is disinfecting the same as sanitizing? What the heck is dwell time?

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here is an easy-peasy quick guide.


Decontamination is the total process used to remove organic matter and microorganisms from an item and to make it safe for use. There are three levels of decontamination: cleaning, disinfection and sterilization.

Dwell Time

Dwell time, also known as contact time, is the amount of time that a cleaning product needs to be in contact with a surface or device for the it to work. For most sanitizers and disinfectants, the surface should remain wet for the required contact time. Check the product instructions because dwell times can vary, sometimes they require up to 10 minutes.


Cleaning is simply the physical removal of foreign material — such as dust, soil and grease — and organic material – such as bodily fluids or food crumbs. Cleaning physically removes rather than kills microorganisms. It’s what happens when you use soap and water to wipe down your kitchen counter, for example.


Sanitizing reduces the number of germs on a surface or object. It’s what happens when you use a sanitizing spray or steam cleaner on your bathroom floor, for example. Most sanitizers, as well as disinfectants, require a clean surface to be effective at killing germs. They also require dwell time to work.


Disinfecting uses chemicals to kill germs. Disinfection is stronger than sanitization, but less lethal than sterilization because it destroys most germs, but not necessarily all microbial forms (such as bacterial spores). It’s what happens when you use a disinfecting spray on your desk, for example. Most disinfectants, like sanitizers, require a clean surface to be effective. They also require dwell time to work.


Sterilizing uses high heat, chemicals and plasma gas to eliminate* all forms of viable germs. It’s what happens when your dentist puts her tools in the autoclave, for example, which uses steam and heat.

Deep Cleaning

Deep cleaning doesn’t have a universal definition. For an airline, it might mean using a fogger to mist plane cabins with a disinfectant – for a homeowner it might mean steam cleaning carpets. Thus, the term really refers more to a technique than a standard.

That’s it! Now you are ready to take on the cleaning product aisle like a pro.

*In a sterilization process, the presence of germs on any individual item can be expressed in terms of probability. Although this probability can be reduced to a very low number, it can never be reduced to zero.


Centers for Disease Control: Best Practices for Environmental Cleaning in Healthcare Facilities

National Health Institute: Decontamination of Medical Devices

National Public Radio: Ships, Planes and Other Spots Are Getting A ‘Deep Clean.’ What’s That Mean?

Centers for Disease Control: Guidelines for Disinfection and Sterilization in Healthcare Facilities

Public Health Ontario: Best Practices for Environmental Cleaning for Prevention and Control of Infections in All Health Care Settings, 3rd Edition

University of California; San Francisco School of Nursing’s Institute for Health & Aging, University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health; and Informed Green Solutions: Green Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting: A Toolkit for Early Care and Education