The key difference between sterilization and disinfection is that sterilization is a process of killing all forms of microbial life including the spores present in an object while disinfection is a process of reducing or removing harmful microorganisms from the inanimate objects and surfaces.
Microorganisms are ubiquitous. Since they cause contamination, infection and decay, it becomes necessary to remove or destroy them from materials or areas via decontamination. Sterilization and disinfection are two modes of decontamination. Disinfection aims at killing the microbes to a level that the infection does not transmit, but it does not necessarily kill all the microorganisms present in an inanimate object. However, sterilization is a process of decontamination wherein all the microorganisms present in an object destroy, and consequently, the object becomes a sterile one. Therefore, sterilization process kills the spores including endospores of bacteria as well. In short, we can say that sterilization kills all the microorganisms present in an object or a place whereas disinfection only reduces the number of harmful microorganisms to prevent transmission.
1. Overview and Key Difference
2. What is Sterilization
3. What is Disinfection
4. Similarities Between Sterilization and Disinfection
5. Side by Side Comparison – Sterilization vs Disinfection in Tabular Form
What is Sterilization?
Sterilization is the process of destructing all forms of microbial life including bacteria, spores, viruses and prions. Therefore, the method of sterilization employed depends on, the purpose, the material which has to be sterilized, the nature of the microorganism that is present, etc. At the end of the sterilization process, the treated object can consider as a sterile object since it does not contain any microbes or spores. Sterilization is two modes; physical methods as well as chemical methods. Physical methods include heat, radiation and filtration while the chemical methods involve liquid and gaseous chemicals.
In addition, a combination of physical and chemical methods (physio-chemical methods) also involve with sterilization. Different sterilization methods commonly used include steam sterilization, heating, chemical sterilization, radiation sterilization and sterile filtration.
Moreover, an ideal sterilant is the one that could function effectively and efficiently in all circumstances and should possess following features.
- Should be capable of destroying all types of microorganisms including viruses, bacteria and fungi.
- It should not adversely affect medical instruments.
- Should act rapidly, allowing the use of instruments meant for various sterilization and disinfection methods.
What is Disinfection?
Disinfection is the process of destroying harmful pathogens in their vegetative state and reducing the number of microorganisms to levels that no longer pose a threat to human health. The purpose of doing this is to prevent transmission of certain microorganisms with objects, hands or skin and prevent spreading the infection. Disinfection is done by disinfectants, and they are the antimicrobial agents that apply on non-living objects to destroy microorganisms that are living on the objects.
It is important to understand that disinfection only reduces the number of microorganisms and does not completely eliminate them. Accordingly, disinfectants have wide use in our day to day life. They are of two types; broad spectrum, which acts over a large variety of microorganisms, and narrow spectrum, which acts on a small variety of microorganisms. Furthermore, they are easy to use, non-toxic and comparatively inexpensive. The different disinfectants commonly used are alcohols, aldehyde, an oxidizing agent, phenols, polyaminopropyl biguanide, etc.
What are the Similarities Between Sterilization and Disinfection?
- Sterilization and disinfection are two methods of decontamination of objects.
- Both methods utilize physical and chemical methods.
- Also, both are effective methods of preventing transmission of infections and diseases.
- Furthermore, both methods are commonly employed every day for various purposes.
What is the Difference Between Sterilization and Disinfection?
The key difference between sterilization and disinfection is that the sterilization is the process of killing all the microorganisms present in an object while the disinfection is the process of eliminating or reducing disease-causing microorganisms from an inanimate object. Furthermore, a significant difference between sterilization and disinfection is that sterilization is capable of killing spores of microorganisms while disinfection is not capable of killing spores.
The below infographic shows more facts about the difference between sterilization and disinfection.
Summary – Sterilization vs Disinfection
Both sterilization and disinfection eliminate the microorganisms that can cause diseases. Depending on the purpose of decontamination either disinfection or sterilization can be used. Disinfection only reduces the number of harmful microorganisms whereas sterilization is the method of complete removal of the microorganisms. Furthermore, disinfection has wide use in daily life and practicality whereas sterilization has wide use in surgical operations or in labs where the sterile condition is necessary. This is the difference between sterilization and disinfection.
1.“Sterilization (Microbiology).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Oct. 2018. Available here
2.National Research Council (US) Safe Drinking Water Committee. “Disinfection Methods and Efficacy.” Drinking Water and Health: Disinfectants and Disinfectant By-Products: Volume 7., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Jan. 1987. Available here
1.”Operating Room and Sterilization DVIDS286912″By Petty Officer 2nd Class Eddie Harrison (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia
2.”12737 PHIL disinfection Ebola outbreak 1995″By CDC/ Ethleen Lloyd – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #12737. (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia