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Soak This In: Detergent, Soap and Disinfectant Are NOT the Same

soapvsdetergent_157077100They both clean, right? So why should you care whether you’re using soaps or detergents as you maintain facilities? Let us explain.


These are made to remove soil, dirt, dust and germs from surfaces. The key word here is “remove.” In other words, detergents don’t kill germs. Instead, they lift debris and dirt from surfaces and are rinsed away with water. Rinsing is an important part of this cleaning process. Detergents are often available as powders or concentrated liquids.

Soaps and detergents perform the same duties: removing dirt and debris from surfaces. The main difference is in how they’re made. Soaps are generally made from natural products like plant and animal fats, and detergents are made from manmade products.

Soap, because it’s made from natural products, is less harmful to skin and the environment than detergent. But detergents are usually more powerful than soaps, and because they’re manmade, detergents can be specifically formulated for different applications.


These kill disease-causing germs on surfaces using germicides or physical agents such as high heat. Disinfectants don’t clean dirt or grease. Many times, it’s necessary to clean a surface with a detergent before using a disinfectant, because if dirt is not cleaned away, it can interfere with the disinfectant’s ability to kill bacteria and viruses.

(Bonus info: Disinfectants are different than other antimicrobial agents, such as antibiotics, which are used to kill bacteria within the body, and antiseptics, which destroy bacteria on the skin.)

Disinfectants are used wherever it’s necessary to kill germs. Think toilets, sinks, food-prep areas, hospitals, floors, and drains. They can also be used to clean mops, buckets, sponges, and clothes.

If they’re not used the right way, disinfectants can be harmful. Their strong fumes can irritate the skin and eyes.


These reduce the amount of germs on a surface to levels that are considered safe, but they do not necessarily kill all germs.

While these differences may seem subtle, they’re important if you care about the cleanliness of your facilities. If your janitorial services provider isn’t using these properly, then your bathrooms, kitchen areas and offices may not be as clean as you think they are. Also the fumes from disinfectants could be putting your building occupants’ and employees’ health at risk — and unnecessarily harming the environment.

When in doubt, be sure to carefully read the manufacturer’s instructions on how to use these cleaning agents safely.

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