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What’s the difference between products that disinfect, sanitize and clean surfaces?

At EPA, products used to kill viruses and bacteria on surfaces are registered as antimicrobial pesticides. Sanitizers and disinfectants are two types of antimicrobial pesticides. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates hand sanitizers, antiseptic washes, and antibacterial soaps for use on people. Information in this FAQ does not apply to any products used on people.

Surface disinfectant products are subject to more rigorous EPA testing requirements and must clear a higher bar for effectiveness than surface sanitizing products. There are no sanitizer-only products with approved virus claims. For this reason, sanitizers do not qualify for inclusion on EPA’s List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2.

There are many products registered with EPA as both sanitizers and disinfectants because they've been tested using both standards. These products are eligible for inclusion on EPA’s List N because of their disinfectant claims. When using these products, follow the directions for virucidal disinfection, and pay close attention to the contact time, which is how long the surface must remain wet. This can often be several minutes.

Cleaning products must be registered by EPA if they make pesticidal or disinfection claims on their labeling, such as controlling a pest, bacteria or virus. 

Read our infographic on how to use disinfectants safely and effectively (PDF).

Return to Frequent Questions about Disinfectants and Coronavirus (COVID-19).