Sterilization vs. Disinfection in Medical Office Cleaning

Karen Lawes

Written by: Karen Lawes Maguire

Karen is the founder and CEO of, a leading cleaning industry website. With 10+ years experience, she's an expert on new cleaning technologies, regulations, and best practices.

Cleaning staff must understand the differences between sterilization and disinfection and when to use each method.

Medical Sterilization

Sterilization involves the complete elimination of all microorganisms including bacterial endospores from medical surfaces and equipment.

It is accomplished through high heat and pressure via steam autoclaving, dry heat, or radiation.

Sterilization provides the highest level of microbial reduction and is used for critical medical items and devices that contact sterile areas of the body.

Medical Disinfection

In contrast, disinfection aims to eliminate most but not all pathogenic microorganisms from inanimate objects.

Disinfection is accomplished through chemical disinfectants or UV radiation. It provides an intermediate level of microbial reduction between sterilization and routine cleaning.

Dr. Abby Carlson of the CDC - Infectious Disease Expert

"Cleaning and disinfection are both very important, and they keep infections from spreading in healthcare," says infectious disease expert Dr. Abby Carlson of the CDC.

According to Dr. Carlson, "Cleaning is the process of removing dirt, germs, and other gunk from surfaces and objects." It eliminates visible dirt and grime as well as unseen germs. In healthcare settings, thorough cleaning is essential to remove contaminants like blood, body fluids and debris.

"Disinfection is a different step that kills germs on surfaces or objects," she explains. Disinfectants work best on already clean surfaces. "When you disinfect, it's important that the surface is clean, because if it isn't, the disinfection might not work," says Dr. Carlson.

By first cleaning then disinfecting surfaces, medical cleaning service staff can lower infection transmission risks. Dr. Carlson advises checking CDC lists of disinfectants effective against pathogens like COVID-19. Proper cleaning and disinfection protocols are critical for healthcare hygiene.

Disinfection is suitable for non-critical surfaces that do not directly contact patients such as floors, walls, furniture and other housekeeping surfaces.

The key difference between sterilization and disinfection is the level of microbial elimination.

Sterilization requires more intense heat, pressure, contact time or stronger chemicals than disinfection, which is a simpler process.

What Needs Sterilization vs. Disinfection in Medical Settings?

Area/Item Sterilization Disinfection
Surgical instruments X
Implants X
Exam room surfaces X
Floors X
Hospital beds X
Waiting rooms X
Walls X
Reception desks X
Door handles X
Lab equipment X
Medical devices X
Catheters X

Keeping Surgical Instruments Sterile

"They are the tools of the trade, used to treat, screen and operate on patients. And many can be re-used, meaning these instruments have to undergo strict and standardized cleaning," says Abdool Karim, manager of Sunnybrook's Reprocessing Centre.

Sterilizing Medical Equipment

According to Karim, dirty instruments are first soaked in a specialized solution that removes blood, body fluids and contaminants. They are then placed in state-of-the-art decontaminators called Turbo 88s, which use high-pressure hot water and cleaning solutions to eliminate all bacteria and viruses.

"It's all automatic. There will have an airglide system that comes by picks up that tray, deposits it on a carosel and then the staff takes it out and redistributes it," Karim explains. After inspection, the clean instruments are packaged and sterilized using industrial steamers.

The most widely used instrument is the bookwalter retractor, which opens the abdomen for surgery access. Despite hundreds of cleanings, most instruments last for years thanks to the rigorous sterilization process.

Karim notes that adapting to new techniques and advances makes instrument reprocessing a dynamic field. Thorough cleaning and sterilization ensures instruments are safe for repeated use on patients.

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