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What is the difference between disinfection and sterilization?

Disinfection vs Sterilization - Which one should you choose?

Disinfection vs Sterilization

What’s common between the people a century ago & the people of the current generation? Both of them have just survived a global pandemic! But there are surely striking differences between the living standards. With the current scientific advancements, life in the 21st century is far safer, luxurious, and easy.  Consider yourself an average global citizen of the 20th century. Just coming out of a World War, followed by a global pandemic, what were the chances of your survival? Even if you survive, what would be your living standards? In such cases, how did they ensure that their surroundings were devoid of pathogens? Was it disinfection or sterilization?

One aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic absolutely made clear is the constant threat human beings face against pesky pathogens, irrespective of the medical advancements. One needs to protect themselves against pathogens and the best way to do it is by implementing hygiene. Just like immunity protects an individual from fighting diseases, hygienic surfaces or objects protect people from pathogens. How do you achieve it? In this article, we will find out how you can achieve hygiene. The crux of the article is to find out what is the difference between sterilization & disinfection. Let’s dive deep into Sterilization vs Disinfection without any further ado.

What is Disinfection?


Disinfection is a pathogen elimination process that aims to drastically reduce the number of pathogens on objects & surfaces. Disinfection is achieved with the help of chemicals called disinfectants. These disinfectants are mostly chemical solutions or wipes and are seldomly used in vapor form. For detailed information, check out our article on the best disinfectant for you. Disinfection is widely used in households to achieve hygienic surfaces & objects. The working of disinfectants is mostly based on two pathways. The first pathway is by damaging the metabolism of the pathogens and the second one is by destroying the cell wall of the pathogens.

History of Disinfection 

Vinegar & alcohol has been used as a disinfectant by many ancient civilizations. They are proven natural disinfectants. But they were not commercially used for large-scale disinfection. Disinfecting properties of bleach were recognized in the 1820s and it was used as a disinfectant. One of the first chemical disinfectants which were widely used was known as carbolic acid, now known as phenol. Nowadays, it is rarely used for disinfection as it is carcinogenic in nature. In 1889, Gustav Raupenstrauch marketed Lysol disinfectant. 

It claimed to put an end to the cholera epidemic in Germany. During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, it was again marketed as a disinfectant that could destroy the influenza virus. Further, the discovery of quaternary ammonium compounds in the 1910s and its subsequent use as a recognized disinfectant in 1935 opened up the surface disinfectant market. Disinfectants which are a blend of alcohol & quaternary ammonium compounds were widely used for surface disinfection in the healthcare sector even today.

Types of Disinfectants


Depending upon the strength of disinfectants, they can be classified as - 

  1. Low level
  2. Intermediate level
  3. High level

Depending upon the nature of disinfectants, they are classified as -

  1. Natural disinfectants
  2. Artificial or chemical disinfectants

Depending upon where the disinfectants are used, they can be classified as -

  1. Hospital grade
  2. Household or commercial grade
  3. Instrument grade

What can disinfectants kill?


Depending upon the type of disinfectant used, they can eliminate the following pathogens -

  1. Viruses (Disinfectants are capable of eliminating even the novel coronavirus provided they are mentioned in the EPA-approved List N.
  2. Fungi
  3. Bacteria
  4. Protozoa

But disinfectants are incapable of destroying a few types of oocysts & bacterial endospores.

What is Sterilization?

In simple terms, sterilization is a decontamination process that kills all the microorganisms including their endospores. The process is used to maintain a sterile environment that is devoid of any microorganisms. Sterilization is used in the healthcare sector during surgeries and research for the preparation of bacterial culture media. Sterilization doesn’t discriminate between micro-organisms, it destroys pathogens as well as good microbes. When a chemical is used to achieve sterilization, it is called a sterilant. 

History of Sterilization

Sterilization was practiced by ancient civilizations to some extent. Modern history documents that sterilization became an essential practice in the late 1800s. The most prominently used sterilant was steam. According to a repository by Harvard University, by 1875 sterilization of medical instruments was widely practiced.

Types of Sterilization

Sterilization can be categorized based on the process employed to achieve it.

  • Autoclaving (Application of high-pressure steam)
  • Use of H2O2 
  • Use of ethylene oxide
  • Ionization
  • Infrared Radiation
  • UV Radiation

So, sterilization can be further categorized into three types - 

  1. Autoclaving
  2. Chemical sterilization
  3. Radiation sterilization

How to decide whether to sterilize or disinfect?


For commercial purposes & households, disinfection is more than enough. Even in the healthcare sector, the surfaces should be disinfected. Sterilization is essential while surgery & preparation of biological culture media. It can also be employed before the reopening of healthcare institutions, educational institutions & businesses. When it comes to medical instruments, Splauding’s classification is employed. It states that -

  1. Medical instruments that are in contact with the intact skin can use low-level disinfection.
  2. Medical instruments that are in contact with the mucous membranes should practice high-level disinfection.
  3. Surgical medical instruments must be sterilized.

What are the similarities & differences between disinfection & sterilization?

Disinfection vs Sterilization

Similarities between disinfection & sterilization -

  • Both the processes, disinfection & sterilization come under decontamination. 
  • The objective of both the processes is to ensure that the object or surface is safe to touch & the chances of infection are reduced. 
  • Both the processes are capable of destroying a large number of pathogens.

Differences between disinfection & sterilization -



Disinfection is capable of eliminating different types of pathogens except for pathogenic endospores.

Sterilization is capable of eliminating all the micro-organisms including the endospores.

Disinfection is a stronger form of decontamination technique than sanitization but weaker than sterilization.

Sterilization is the strongest form of decontamination. 

It is more practical to use disinfection in everyday life for getting rid of pathogens from objects & surfaces. For example, disinfection in commercial spaces & households.

It is performed when there is a need for a sterile environment. For example, in healthcare institutions during surgeries & laboratories during the preparation of biological culture media.

Wounds should be disinfected with the help of tincture iodine, hydrogen peroxide, or rubbing alcohol.

Wounds should never be sterilized as it may destroy human cells.

Even after disinfection, there is a negligible chance of infection.

As sterilization eliminates all the microbes & endospores, there is no chance of infection.

Low-level & intermediate-level of disinfection can be performed without any supervision & minimal training.

Sterilization should be carried out by trained professionals.

Disinfectants that are responsible for disinfection are chemical compounds.

Sterilization can be achieved with the help of high temperatures, high pressure, radiation, and even chemicals called sterilants.

Curious ones can also check out our blog on cleaning vs disinfecting.


Disinfection vs Sterilization

Large-scale disinfection was still not a regular practice but sterilization of the medical instruments was commonly performed in the 1910s. So what’s the difference between disinfection & sterilization? The major difference between disinfection & sterilization is that endospores can be eliminated by sterilization only. Moreover, sterilization doesn’t make any discrimination between good & bad microorganisms. If you are planning to maintain hygiene in your household or business, then employ disinfection as it would be more than enough for preventing any infection.