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Blinded by Science: Sanitization vs. Disinfection vs. Sterilization or How Clean is Clean?

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July 24, 2015 by fhsteinbart


Typical three compartment sanitization procedure as used in food services.

Typical three compartment sanitization procedure as used in food services.

One of the first things every home brewer learns about is the importance of sanitizing your brewery.  But what does sanitization really mean?  There are also other terms we hear like disinfection or sterilization; so what do these terms mean and how do they relate to each other?  Webster’s dictionary defines Sanitization as the “process whereby pathogenic organisms are reduced to safe levels on inanimate objects, thereby reducing the likelihood of cross-infection.” Where as Disinfection is defined as “the destruction of pathogenic microorganisms or their toxins or vectors by direct exposure to chemical or physical agents.” Furthermore sterilization is considered “to destroy microorganisms in or on inanimate objects, usually by bringing to a high temperature with steam, dry heat, or boiling liquid, and also destroys the spores of various organisms present on surfaces, in liquids, in medication, or in compounds such as biological culture media.”

So basically sanitization is the physical removal of foreign biological objects from inanimate objects; and disinfection is about the destruction of said foreign biological objects; and sterilization not only destroys harmful foreign biological objects and also their spores but not any toxins they have generated.  Sanitization results in a 99% plus removal of foreign biological objects from surfaces, disinfection results in a 99.99% reduction of foreign biological objects from surfaces, while sterilization results in a 100% destruction of foreign biological objects and their spores.  Sanitizers are usually liquid while disinfectants are usually aerosol sprays and sterilizing agents are either chemical, physical, or radioactive in nature.

Usual and customary products for running a clean and sanitary home brewery, from 5-Star products.

Usual and customary products for running a clean and sanitary home brewery, from 5-Star products.

It is therefore incumbent upon home brewers to use the proper cleaning and sanitizing agents to remove the observable physical detritus with cleaning agents such as per carbonates like the PBW, One Step, or Straight A.  This is followed by rigorous sanitization with either Iodofor, or Star-San, depending on whether the surfaces to sanitize are highly polished metals as found in copper and stainless steel or glass and plastic as used in home breweries with Star-San.  While Iodofor is excellent for polish metals, Star-San is the preferred sanitizer for glass and plastic as these surfaces are hydrophobic and thus require a surfactant to penetrate the hydrophobic surfaces and sanitize them adequately. By keeping our home breweries clean and sanitary we reduce the chances of cross contamination that could spoil a batch of our beer and keep our beers clean and tasty.

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