Clean, Sanitize, Disinfect—What and When

Cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting are not the same. Here’s what to do—and when—to keep your guests and food safe.

April 15
When it comes to food safety and preventing your guests from getting ill, you already know how important it is to keep your restaurant clean. You probably also know that your local health inspector will check to make sure it’s not only clean, but sanitary. And, in an age of viruses like the one that caused COVID-19, you’ll likely want to take the extra step of disinfecting areas of your operation to protect patrons even more. But what, where and when should you clean, sanitize or disinfect?
These three processes aren’t the same, so the first step in knowing what to do, when, and where is understanding what each process entails.
Cleaning physically removes food and other soil from any type of surface from floors to countertops and equipment to dishware. Examples include scrubbing pots and pans, washing down hoods with degreaser, sweeping floors, wiping tables, and dusting light fixtures.
Sanitizing reduces the number of pathogens on a clean surface to safe levels using chemicals; it helps inhibit growth of harmful bacteria. Sanitizing isn’t intended to kill viruses. However, some sanitizing solutions kill some viruses. Sanitizing should be performed on all surfaces that come in contact with food, from cutting boards to dining room tables. Note: Hot water can sanitize, but it needs to be 170°F (not hot from the tap), and water that hot burns skin, so unless your crew is protectively equipped, chemical sanitizing is recommended.
Disinfecting uses chemicals to kill up to 99.9% of microorganisms, including bacteria and viruses, on non-porous surfaces. Disinfectants should never be used on food-contact surfaces due to their potentially toxic effects.
When to Clean
Cleaning non-food-contact surfaces—walls, floors, equipment exteriors, light fixtures, hoods, shelves, etc.—on a regular basis prevents food residue, dirt, dust and grease from building up. This helps preserve the useful life of these things, and also prevents pests and the growth of pathogens. Most of these surfaces should be cleaned at least daily, though spills should be cleaned immediately. Some may require cleaning after every shift, and others such as light fixtures may need less frequent cleaning.
When to Clean & Sanitize
Food-contact surfaces must be cleaned and sanitized after every use. In certain circumstances, however, they may require cleaning and sanitizing more often, such as:
  • Before working with a different type of food—prepping raw chicken and cutting produce, for example.
  • Between handling different raw Time/Temperature Control for Safety (TCS) fruits and vegetables—slicing melons and then working with leafy greens, for example.
  • Any time a task has been interrupted, risking possible contamination of the items being used.
  • After 4 hours if items have been in constant use.
When to Disinfect
Surfaces to clean and disinfect include all the non-porous high-touch points in your restaurant that could transmit germs from one person to another. These include:
  • Doorknobs, railings, light switches
  • Bathroom surfaces—faucets, sinks, toilets, etc.
  • Menus, order kiosks, ATMs
  • POS systems, keyboards, phones, tablets (avoid spraying electronics directly)
Ideally, you should clean and disinfect these surfaces between uses, but at a minimum make sure you do it several times a day.
5-Step Cleaning and Sanitizing
  1. Remove food, dirt and debris with the right tools (nylon brush or scouring pad, cloth towel, etc.)
  2. Wash the surface with detergent or cleaning solution and the proper tool such as a cloth towel.
  3. Rinse the surface with clean water.
  4. Sanitize the surface with sanitizing solution prepared to the proper concentration and the right tools such as a spray bottle or cloth towel. Let stand for the proper amount of time indicated on the label.
  5. Wipe excess solution with clean, disposable cloth or paper towel and allow surface to air-dry.