Understanding the Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing & Sterilizing

As a general rule, everything that has had direct contact with food needs to be cleaned and sanitized.
August 13, 2017

Definitions of cleaning, sanitizing and sterilizing


Cleaning is designed to remove all visible dirt, soil, chemical residues and allergens from equipment, utensils and work surfaces.


Sanitizing is designed to reduce the number of microorganisms to a safe level. Sanitizing is performed after cleaning. Unclean surfaces will reduce the effectiveness of sanitizing. All surfaces that come into contact with food must be cleaned and sanitized regularly.


Sanitizing should not be confused with sterilizing. While sanitizing reduces microorganisms to a safe level, sterilizing removes all microorganisms from an item.

Sterilizing is not often performed in a commercial kitchen environment, but is used in places like hospital operating rooms.

What to Clean & Sanitize

As a general rule, everything that has had direct contact with food needs to be cleaned and sanitized.

Examples of items that may have had direct contact with food include crockery, glassware, cutlery, pots and pans, serving utensils, cooking equipment, chopping boards, kitchen surfaces and counters.

Other items – that have not had direct contact with food – must be cleaned, but not necessarily sanitized. Such items may include chairs, tables, floors, doors, walls and windows. Don’t forget to also clean hard to reach areas such as under cushions, around light fittings and blinds or drapes. Drains and restrooms need to be cleaned at least once a day.

The cleaning schedule in your Food Safety Plan should include instructions for when and how to clean floors, sinks, walls, counters, chairs and tables.

The importance of cleaning and sanitizing

There are three main reasons why cleaning and sanitizing is important:

  1. Prevent pest infestations, pests are attracted to dirt and food scraps.
  2. Stay compliant, laws and regulations governs cleaning and sanitizing in food businesses. 
  3. Protect staff, staff are at risk if exposed to equipment and utensils that haven't been cleaned and sanitized properly. 
  4. Keep customers safe, no one wants to eat food from a business with a reputation for being dirty, much less a place that makes you sick. 

Don’t forget — food-borne illness can cause severe illness or even death. Frequent, rigorous cleaning and sanitizing will help to prevent this from happening in your food business.

Download the CIFS Guide to Effective Cleaning & Sanitizing for more information about what, when and how to clean and sanitize surfaces and equipment in your food business to prevent food-borne illness and other serious food risks.