San 2 - The Language of Cleaning


Part 2:  The Language of Cleaning


Different government agencies have formulated specific definitions for cleaning, disinfection, sanitizing and sterilizing. A brief look at the language and terminology used in this document will be helpful. The world of cleaning ranges from home-based practices to the rigidly-controlled sterilization required in hospital environments. (See the Terminology section.)


The first step in protecting against the transmission of disease by microorganism is to clean the object. Cleaning starts with the physical removal of the organisms. This may be done by wiping, brushing or blowing away the surface contaminants. (Note that in disturbing surface pathogens, care must be taken when those organisms become airborne. Masks are important protective gear.) Cleaning may include the use of chemicals called detergents. These products help to remove dirt and oil. Cleaning is a form of sanitizing. It removes potentially harmful substances and makes it safe to use the object.


Stronger chemicals called disinfectants may not just remove, but also destroy, harmful microorganisms. These products come in a range of strengths designed for everything from simple home cleaning to sterile hospital applications. They are designed for use against (anti) specific organisms. A product that aids in the removal of bacteria is called an anti-bacterial, but one that kills bacteria is a bactericide.


Although it is essential in some healthcare situations, sterilization, the total removal of all microorganisms by using great heat or chemical action, is not the goal at the assistive technology (AT) reuse center. That level of removal is neither necessary nor practical for the types of assistive technology that will be handled and reutilized.


Several major government agencies are concerned with cleaning and disinfection practices, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They have adopted precise definitions of these terms that apply to their use in specified situations.

For example, according to the CDC, “sterilization means the use of a physical or chemical procedure to destroy all microbial life, including highly resistant bacterial endospores, “ while “disinfection means the use of a chemical procedure that eliminates virtually all recognized pathogenic microorganisms but not necessarily all microbial forms (e.g., bacterial endospores) on inanimate objects.”1

The FDA defines sanitizers as “chemical or physical agents that reduce microorganism contamination levels present on inanimate environmental surfaces,” and cites the EPA standard for non-food contact surfaces as requiring “a reduction of the target microorganism by 99.9% or 3 logs (1000, 1/1000, or 103) after 5 minutes of contact time.”2

When possible, the procedures recommended by the manufacturers of assistive technology should be followed, and those procedures should comply with the recommendations of these agencies.


Terminology: Some General Definitions 3

anti-   prefix 1 against, hostile to, opposed to  2 that counteracts, that operates against  3 that prevents, cures, or neutralizes

-cide  suffix   killer [pesticide]

clean:   adj.  1 free from dirt, contamination, or impurities; unsoiled; unstained   vt. 1 to make clean  2 to remove (dirt, impurities, etc.) in making clean

detergent:  n. a cleansing substance; specifically, a surface-active chemical preparation that is capable of emulsifying dirt or oil

disinfect:  vt.  to destroy the harmful bacteria, viruses, etc. in or on; sterilize

disinfectant: adj. disinfecting; n. anything that disinfects; means for destroying harmful bacteria

infect:  vt. 1  to contaminate with a disease-producing organism or matter  2 to cause to become diseased by bringing into contact with such organism or matter

pathogen: n. any agent, especially a microorganism, able to cause disease

sanitary:  adj. 1 of health or the rules and conditions of health; especially, promoting health and healthful conditions by the elimination of dirt and agents of infection or disease  2 in a clean, healthy condition; hygienic

sanitation:  n. 1 the science and practice of effecting healthful and hygienic conditions; study and use of hygienic measures such as drainage, ventilation, pure water supply, etc. 2 drainage and disposal of sewage

sanitize:  v. 1 to make sanitary, as by sterilizing  2 to free from anything considered undesirable, damaging

sterilize:  vt. To make sterile; c) to free from living microorganisms, as by subjecting to great heat or chemical action



1“Sterilization or Disinfection of Medical Devices: General Principles,” U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from

2“The A to Z,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Retrieved March 17, 2008, from 3Webster’s New World Dictionary, Third College Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1991.





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This work is supported under a five-year cooperative agreement # H235V060016 awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and is administered by the Pass It On Center of the Georgia Department of Labor – Tools for Life.  However, the contents of this publication do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the Department of Education, or the Georgia Department of Labor, and you should not assume endorsements of this document by the Federal government or the Georgia Department of Labor.


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Other Information

Title: San 2 - The Language of Cleaning
Module: Program Operations
Author: Trish Redmon
Audience: Administrator
Sub Title: Sanitization terminology
Organization Source: Pass It On Center
Last Reviewed: 10-25-2009 6:03 PM