COVID-19 Cleaning Services Must Make a Clean Start

In their eagerness to fight the pandemic, some COVID-19 cleaning services immediately begin selling customers their COVID disinfecting services or their “sanitizing” options. If and when they finally bring cleaning into the mix, it is merely as an afterthought. This is a (huge) mistake. Let’s look at why, starting with what cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are—and are not.


Cleaning “is the process of locating, identifying, containing, removing, and properly disposing of unwanted substances from a surface or area. Cleaning usually involves soap or a cleaning formula and requires some form of agitation, such as the rubbing together of hands or the use of a brush, sponge, running water, or vacuum. Cleaning removes upwards of 90% of pathogens—but it does not kill them.”


When COVID-19 cleaning services announce they are “sanitizing” a surface, it is most often a misnomer. Sanitizers are specific products primarily used in food service, restrooms, and other fast-turnover settings. Sanitizers reduce (but do not kill) pathogens to an EPA-approved safe level of 99.9% on nonfood-related surfaces (99.999% on food-contact surfaces) in 30 seconds or less.

Since the dawn of COVID-19, however, the term sanitize has morphed to also refer to the process of spraying a disinfectant and then quickly wiping it away, without leaving it on the surface for the proper “dwell,” or contact, time required to actually disinfect.

In this new, technically incorrect—but increasingly widespread—use of the term, sanitizing is equal to the act of cleaning, since without the proper dwell time, you have removed pathogens but not killed them. Moreover, the remaining germs can thrive and multiply.

It is worth noting that when it comes to effectiveness against viruses, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, the EPA is clear: “There are no sanitizer-only products with approved virus claims.”


Disinfectants kill (vs. remove or reduce) up to 99.999% of pathogens and require a dwell time to work, most often between 3 and 10 minutes. Without allowing the proper dwell time specified by the disinfectant’s manufacturer, the surface will not be disinfected, which can lead to a false sense of security and pose potentially serious health hazards.

Additional vital facts about disinfectants include:

  • All disinfectants used in the United States must be registered and approved by the EPA.
  • Surface disinfectants are subject to more rigorous EPA testing and must attain a higher level of effectiveness than surface sanitizers.
  • No one disinfectant kills all pathogens; a disinfectant is only effective against the viruses, bacteria, and other germs listed on the disinfectant’s label and safety data sheet (SDS).
  • The EPA’s N List includes the disinfectants approved effective against SARS-CoV-2; the use of other disinfectants can prove ineffective against the virus.
  • Some formulas are registered with the EPA as sanitizers and disinfectants combined. However, if disinfection is the goal, the exact pathogen targeted must appear on the label, and the directions for disinfecting must be adhered to, including the proper dwell time.

Coming Clean

If the only way to actually kill the SARS-CoV-2 virus is to use an appropriate disinfectant, why bother cleaning first? Below are a few major reasons:

  • Dirt and debris can act as a protector, shielding pathogens from the disinfectant and creating a safe haven that allows them to thrive and even multiply. This can prove especially true for SARS-CoV-2, which is an “enveloped” virus, i.e., it is surrounded by a lipid membrane. This membrane is easily broken down by an EPA-approved SARS-CoV-2-killing disinfectant, but not if the virus cells are sheltered by dirt or dust that prevents the disinfectant from penetrating the membrane.
  • Germs reside in cracks and crevices and can be missed by disinfectants, especially on porous surfaces, but can be removed by agitation during the cleaning process.
  • Continuing to spray disinfectant on a surface that has not been cleaned between applications creates a biofilm buildup that attracts pathogens and provides an ideal environment for them to reproduce.
  • Disinfectant use is necessary, especially for high-touch points and where there is a known case of COVID-19 or a cold, flu, or similar outbreak. However, EPA-registered disinfectants are chemicals, many of which can be dangerous to building occupants’ health and the environment. This is why every disinfectant used in the United States must have an SDS and label outlining its potential dangers. It is also why the CDC recommends cleaning—not disinfecting—seldom-used surfaces and areas where there is no known contamination; disinfecting outdoor areas, such as playgrounds and parks, is never recommended as disinfectants are ineffective in these areas and pose unnecessary health and environmental risks.
  • In addition to being healthier and more sustainable, avoiding the unwarranted use of disinfectants saves time and money, especially since dwell time must be figured into a cleaning service’s schedule.

Disinfecting is integral to keeping a facility and its occupants healthy. However, if your COVID-19 cleaning service provider isn’t emphasizing the need to start with cleaning, contact Servicon, your infection-prevention experts.

COVID-19 Cleaning Services Near Me

Servicon provides COVID-19 cleaning and disinfecting services for complex facilities throughout California. Please contact us for more information.

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