Sanitizers and detergents are common foodservice chemicals.
While commonly used interchangeable to mean the same thing, sanitizers and detergents are not the same.
This article explains the key difference between sanitizers and detergents, and when and how to use them safely and effectively.
Sanitizers vs. detergents
Sanitizers and detergents are different chemicals with different uses.
Sanitizers kills disease-cause organisms called pathogens and reduces them to safe numbers, while detergents remove dirt, grease, and other contaminants.
Therefore, the key difference between sanitizers and detergents rests in the ability to reduce pathogens to safe numbers — sanitizers can, while detergents cannot.
However, you cannot properly and effectively sanitize a surface that contains dirt, grease, and other contaminants, making detergents an essential foodservice chemical.
Along with sanitizers and detergents, you may have also heard of disinfectants and sterilant products.
These products are stronger than sanitizers in reducing pathogen numbers but, due to their strength, are not approved for use in foodservice.
Instead, they are more commonly used in healthcare and hospital settings.
Sanitizers reduce pathogens to safe numbers, while detergents remove dirt, grime, grease, and food particles to allow sanitizers to work properly.
When to use sanitizers and detergents
There are two types of surfaces in a kitchen — food contact surfaces and non-food contact surfaces.
A food contact surface is any surface that comes in direct contact with food, such as utensils, pots, pans, cutting boards, and equipment like griddles and food prep tables.
Conversely, a non-food contact surface does not come in direct contact with food and includes kitchen floors, walls, and ceilings.
When it comes to food contact surfaces, you must always first clean it using a detergent to remove visible contaminants and then use a sanitizer.
Remember, you cannot effectively sanitize a dirty or contaminated surfaces.
You should clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces whenever they become contaminated, such as:
- before and after handling food, especially raw animal products
- when switching tasks, such as between cutting raw poultry and chopping carrots
- after taking a break, in case of contamination unknowingly occurred while you were away
- after four hours of continuous use, since this enough time for bacteria to multiply to unsafe levels
- when preparing an allergen-free order to prevent cross-contact
When it comes to non-food contact surfaces, you need to use a detergent regularly for cleaning but you don’t need to sanitize since the surface does not come in direct contact with food.
Non-food contact surfaces should be corrosion-resistant, nonabsorbent, and smooth, making them durable and easy to clean.
You need to regularly clean non-food contact surfaces like floors and walls, but you don’t need to sanitize them. However, you must always clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces like utensils, dinnerware, and food prep tables.
How to properly clean and sanitize
Follow these steps to properly clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces:
- Remove any loose or caked-on food particles.
- Scrub the surface using warm water and a detergent to remove stuck-on food particles, grime, and oils.
- Rinse the surface with clean water to wash away any detergent residue.
- Following the directions on the container, apply a sanitizing solution.
- Allow the surface to air dry (never use a cloth or towel for drying since this can recontaminate the surface).
There are a few extra steps when it comes to cleaning and sanitizing stationary equipment like ranges, grills, hot-holding equipment, and microwaves.
To clean and sanitize stationary equipment, follow these steps:
- Unplug the equipment.
- Scrape or remove food from surfaces.
- Remove all removable parts and wash, rinse, and sanitize by hand or run through a dishwasher.
- Wash and rinse all food-contact surfaces you cannot remove.
- Sanitize the equipment surfaces and allow them to air-dry.
- Reassemble the unit.
Wiping cloths are convenient for cleaning and sanitizing, but you can pick up pathogens in your cloth and spread them around if you’re uncareful.
Here are tips to use wiping cloths safely:
- Don’t reuse dry cleaning cloths that you use to wipe up food spills or anything else.
- Keep wet cloths used for sanitizing in the sanitizing solution between uses.
- Regularly check the sanitizing solution concentration using a test kit to ensure it’s still effective.
- Don’t use wiping cloths that you use to clean and sanitize surfaces that come in contact with raw animal foods.
- Launder wet wiping cloths daily.
Clean and sanitize food contact surfaces whenever they become contaminated. You cannot sanitize a dirty surface so follow the necessary steps to properly clean and sanitize a surface.
Foodservice-approved chemical sanitizers
The three main chemical sanitizers approved for foodservice include chlorine, iodine, and quaternary ammonium (quats).
However, the 2022 FDA Food Code allows the use of other food-grade sanitizers that are proven effective and used according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)–registered label use instructions (1).
Regardless of your chosen sanitizer, make sure to read the label closely before use.
The label will tell you what the water temperature should be, how much sanitizer to add, and how long the sanitizer should remain on the food-contact surface to be effective.
Each sanitizer — as well as detergent — should come with a safety data sheet (SDS) that provides information about the chemical’s hazards and how to safely use and store it.
Here’s a quick look at these factors for the three main chemical sanitizers approved for foodservice:
|Minimum water temperature||Depending on concentration and pH||68ºF (20ºC)||75ºF (24ºC)|
|Sanitizer concentration||25–100 ppm||12.5–25 ppm||Dependent on manufacturer|
|Sanitizer contact time||10 sec||30 sec||30 sec|
You can use heat as the sanitizer when washing dishes and utensils in a 3-compartment sink and some dishwashers but chemicals tend to be preferred.
The three primary chemical sanitizers approved for foodservice include chlorine, iodine, and quats. Read the label of your chosen sanitizer for proper and safe use.
The bottom line
Sanitizers reduce pathogens to safe numbers, while detergents remove dirt, grime, grease, and food particles.
You don’t need to sanitize non-food contact surfaces like floors and walls — just regularly clean.
However, you must always use a detergent to clean and a sanitizer to sanitize food-contact surfaces when they become contaminated.
You cannot sanitize a dirty surface so follow the necessary steps for effective cleaning and sanitizing.
The three primary chemical sanitizers approved for foodservice include chlorine, iodine, and quats.
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