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Quick Guide to Cleaning Chemicals

24 January 2024

Jennie Hollingsworth

Cleaning, sanitising and disinfecting – understanding the differences

When it comes to hygiene procedures, the terms ‘cleaning’, ‘sanitising’ and ‘sterilising’ are often used interchangeably. However, there are distinct differences between each one, which are important to know initially in order to use the correct products and avoid spreading germs and infections. Take a look at our brief summary of each procedure, for a handy guide:

Cleaning – removes dirt, dust and other visible soils from surfaces. This does not kill bacteria, but should be carried out before disinfecting, sanitising or sterilising to make these processes more effective.

Sanitising – reduces bacteria and viruses on surfaces. Sanitising does not complete kill all bacteria and viruses but does reduce them. Sanitising is used on food contact surfaces such as food prep areas or dining tables as it involves less harsh chemicals than disinfecting.

Disinfecting – kills harmful bacteria and viruses from surfaces. Disinfecting is the only sure-fire way to kill bacteria and viruses on surfaces, but this does not mean that every disinfectant kills every bacteria. Always read the label of a disinfectant to find out what bacteria and viruses it does kill. Disinfectants are used on many surfaces, but are particularly necessary in healthcare settings.

Sterilising – kills all microorganisms from surfaces, not just viruses and germs. It is most often necessary in healthcare settings such as surgeries and hospitals, as well as beauty studios and tattoo studios for making sure equipment that comes into contact with people is safe to use.

Using the right product for the job

As we’ve discussed, using the correct chemicals for the surface and job that is being carried out – for example: cleaning floors, sanitising tables, disinfecting hospital beds or sterilising surgical equipment ­­– is essential to ensure safe and effective results.

In addition, using the right product for the job is not just about killing germs – there are also environmental issues to consider. It’s important to use products that do not needlessly cause harm to the environment when something more eco-friendly will suffice. Limiting the amount of environmental harm we cause is a key part of operating a sustainable business and should be something all organisations strive for.

At phs Direct our account managers are experts in their field and can advise you on not only on the most efficient chemicals for your washroom, office, kitchen, healthcare facility or floor cleaning needs, but also on how they should be used correctly, and which products are safest for the environment.

phs Direct provides a complete consumables solution for all areas of your cleaning needs, and in the area of chemicals, we provide guidance on their correct usage to help ensure you meet your legal duty of care for staff and visitors alike.

Here are some helpful examples of the products supplied by phs Direct and their uses. Remember always to read the label to ensure there are safe and effective for the purpose they are required, or for further information contact your phs Direct expert account manager.


Essential for washroom and kitchen hygiene, disinfectants contain antimicrobial agents, such as pine oil, sodium hypochlorite (as found in bleach), quaternary ammonium compounds or phenols, which kill bacteria and viruses on surfaces.

Bleach or Sodium hypochlorite to give its a chemical name is effective on stains found on hard surfaces. Not only can bleach be used as a bacteria-killing disinfectant, but it will also tackle viruses, mould and mildew, so is an indispensable tool in the cleaning armoury.

Remember, It is not sufficient to simply apply disinfectant to dirty surfaces, as they should be free of heavy soil for effective disinfection.

For convenience, combined disinfectant cleaners can be used to both clean and leave surfaces hygienic.

As well as antimicrobial agents which kill germs, they contain surfactants and builders to remove soil. Surfactants work by reducing the surface tension of a liquid, enabling it to penetrate solids and lift dirt.

Glass Cleaners 

Trying to clean glass with a non-specialist glass cleaner will leave mirrors and glass surfaces streaky and potentially worse in appearance than before you started!  Glass cleaners are designed to clean glass surfaces without streaking or leaving any residual soil or product.

Liquid glass cleaners contain surfactants to loosen soil, as well as solvents to dissolve oily soil. Builders are included to remove heavier soils, especially oily soil and alkaline-based builders, such as ammonia, are more effective on acidic soils like body oils or cooking grease.

Using multi-surface cleaners can save money and the need to store many different containers. They are effective across a variety of kitchen and washroom surfaces and have the additional feature of being non-streaking on the glass. The unique combination of surfactants, solvents, mild alkalis and builders provides this essential non-streaking characteristic.

Toilet Bowl Cleaners    

Chemicals for keeping toilets clean, disinfected and pleasantly fragranced have an often complex range of cleaning jobs to fulfill.

Included in this category are thickened liquids that cling to the sides of the toilet bowl, fresheners that keep the bowl smelling fresh, and in-tank cleaners that release active ingredients into the bowl with each flush.

Surfactants plus oxidants or acids are the primary ingredients for soil removal. The presence of acids, sequestrants and oxides remove hard water and organic stains.

Toilet bowl cleaners with disinfecting action contain antimicrobial agents. To remove stubborn rust and hard water stains, some products may contain strong acids, such as hydrochloric acid.

Always remember that because of the incompatible nature of these products, manufacturers often warn not to mix them with other cleaning products.

Tub, Tile and Sink Cleaners

These products remove not only the soils found on bathroom and kitchen surfaces but also hard water deposits, soap scum, rust stains and discolourations due to mould growth.

They normally contain surfactants to penetrate and loosen soil. In addition, they may contain special sequestering agents and solvents to dissolve and keep calcium deposits, soap scum and metal discolourations in solution.

Tub, tile and sink cleaners designed to remove mildew stains may also contain an oxidant and antimicrobial agents to attack mould and mildew.  They also contain acids, such as hydroxyacetic to tackle soap scum.

Floor Care Products      

With so many different types of flooring materials it can be difficult to choose which product is best for your application.

Each floor type requires a specially formulated product for maximum effectiveness in removing soil, polishing the surface and leaving it with a shine and a protective coat. No-rinse products offer added convenience and easy application. 

Floor polish build up is inevitable without specific stripping back. The alternative is to use one-step products which are designed to be self-stripping. They are formulated so that a new application of product dissolves the old polish and re-applies a fresh coat which dries to the original shine. 

Floor finishing products do not clean but are used solely for imparting a gloss to floors. Such products are clear emulsions of acrylic polymers, which dry to a hard shiny finish. Some products may also contain wax particles.

In products for wood flooring, liquid or paste wax is still the principal gloss-producing ingredient which is then buffed to increase shine.

Carpet and Rug Cleaners

By their nature, carpets and rugs easily harbour dirt and debris and therefore require regular maintenance to remain clean and fresh.

Carpet and rug shampoos work by wetting the pile of the carpet and taking up oily and greasy soils. They trap soil in suspension which dries to a brittle solid residue for removal by vacuuming.

In addition, shampoos may contain colour brighteners, deodorizers to counteract malodours, and soil retardants to keep carpets cleaner longer.

Carpet cleaning can also be achieved by the use of wet, free-flowing powders. These contain water, solvents and surfactants to emulsify soil. The emulsified soil is absorbed onto the powders. Once dry, the powder can be easily removed by vacuuming.