While washing or cleaning is an important step to keep food safe, it’s ultimately the sanitizing that kills and reduces harmful bacteria and viruses to safe levels.
This is why you need to sanitize all food-contact surfaces to keep them free of harmful strains of bacteria and other disease-causing organisms called pathogens.
There are several types of sanitizers available, but only a few are approved for foodservice.
This article provides an overview of the three chemical sanitizers approved for foodservice and how to use them correctly and safely.
Sanitization vs. disinfection vs. sterilization
The process of sanitizing something involves killing and reducing viruses or harmful strains of bacteria to safe levels.
Sanitization is different from disinfection and from sterilization.
Disinfection kills most or all pathogens, and sterilization kills all pathogens. Disinfectants and sterilant products are more commonly used in healthcare and hospital settings.
Sanitization doesn’t kill all bacteria but it reduces them to safe numbers. Disinfection kills all or most bacteria, and sterilization kills all bacteria.
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When and how to sanitize
You must clean and sanitize any surface that comes in contact with food before and after each use.
You must also clean sanitize a food-contact surface between working with raw animal foods and ready-to-eat foods to prevent cross-contamination, and between working with a major food allergen like raw fish and other types of raw animal food to prevent cross-contact.
Food-contact surfaces include:
- plates and dishes
- silverware and serving utensils
- a 3-compartment sink
- food preparation tables and cutting boards
- food equipment
Before you can sanitize a food-contact surface, you must wash it using warm, soapy water, and then rinse the surface to remove any residue from the detergent.
This helps loosen oil and other food debris that would otherwise make sanitizing less effective or even useless — you cannot sanitize a dirty surface.
After a food-contact surface is clean, you can sanitize it.
You can apply sanitizers using a spray bottle or a clean cloth to wipe surfaces.
After application, allow the sanitizer to air-dry just as you would clean dishes. Using a towel — even if clean —can recontaminate the surface.
Here are the steps to sanitize a food-contact surface:
- Remove any loose or caked-on food particles.
- Wash the surface using a cleaner and a cloth towel.
- Rinse the surface with clean water.
- Sanitize the surface and allow it to air dry.
The process of sanitizing is similar when it comes to stationary equipment:
- Unplug the equipment.
- Scrape or remove food from surfaces.
- Remove all removable parts and wash, rinse, and sanitize by hand or run through the dishwasher.
- Wash and rinse all food-contact surfaces that you can’t remove.
- Sanitize the equipment surfaces and allow them to air dry, including any parts that you removed and sanitized separately.
- Reassemble the unit.
However, you should still follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for cleaning and sanitizing stationary equipment.
You must wash, rinse, and sanitize all food-contact surfaces often and when they become contaminated to keep people safe from bacteria and other pathogens.
Three chemical sanitizers approved for foodservice
The three main chemical sanitizers approved for foodservice include chlorine, iodine, and quaternary ammonium (quats) (1).
These agents are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and you can safely use them without additional regulatory authority approval.
They are considered food-grade or food-safe because, unlike a disinfectant, even if they come in contact with food, they’re unlikely to make people sick.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows the use of other sanitizers if they meet certain criteria.
Many factors influence the effectiveness and safety of sanitizers.
Some of these factors include:
- Concentration: Too low of a concentration won’t effectively sanitize and too high of a concentration can be toxic.
- Water temperature: Sanitizers work best between 55ºF (13ºC) and 120ºF (49ºC).
- Water hardness: Higher water hardness can decrease the effectiveness of some sanitizers.
- Contact time: To effectively kill and reduce bacteria and other pathogens to safe levels, sanitizers must remain in contact with food-contact surfaces for 10–30 seconds.
- pH: Sanitizers tend to work better in more neutral environments rather than acidic ones.
Of these factors, concentration and water temperature are the most important to ensure proper sanitization and safety.
Use a test strip or kit to verify that the concentration for your chosen chemical sanitizer is correct.
Chlorine-based sanitizers are the most popular and widely used sanitizers in foodservice.
Sodium hypochlorite and chlorine dioxide are the active ingredients in chlorine-based sanitizers.
Chlorine sanitizers are less expensive compared with other sanitizers and are very effective in reducing bacteria to safe numbers.
The concentration of chlorine ranges from 25 to 100 parts per million (ppm).
The minimum temperature required for chlorine solutions depends primarily on the concentration (1).
|Concentration (ppm)||Minimum Temperature (pH ≤ 10)||Minimum Temperature (pH ≤ 8)|
|25–49||120ºF (49ºC)||120ºF (49ºC)|
|50–99||100ºF (38ºC)||75ºF (24ºC)|
|100||55ºF (13ºC)||55ºF (13ºC)|
Chlorine-based sanitizers must remain on food-contact surfaces for at least 10 seconds to work effectively.
Iodine is an effective sanitizer but it’s more costly and less effective than chlorine.
Iodine is commonly used in the medical field to disinfect the skin prior to surgeries and to prevent wounds from becoming infected.
Iodine compounds leave behind a reddish-brown stain that can be difficult to remove, especially from plastics, so they are better suited for surfaces less prone to stainings like glass or stainless steel.
The concentration of iodine for sanitation is 12.5 to 25 ppm.
When using an iodine-based sanitizer, you should allow the sanitizer to remain on food-contact surfaces for at least 30 seconds to work effectively.
Quaternary ammonium (quats)
Quaternary ammonium — or quats — is effective against a wide range of pathogens.
Unlike other the other two sanitizers, quats leave a residue that provides short-term antibacterial effects after it dries.
The concentration for quats varies from 100 ppm to 400 ppm so read the label for dilution recommendations.
Like iodine, quats must remain on food-contact surfaces for at least 30 seconds.
Quats bind to the fibers of a microfiber towel, which makes it less effective for sanitizing, so you should use a non-woven cloth if you aren’t using a spray application.
As explained in the 2022 Food Code, you may use other food-safe sanitizers that are effective if you use them according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)–registered label use instructions (1).
Peroxyacetic acid (PAA) —a mixture of acetic acid or hydrogen peroxide — is one example.
PAA is primarily used during food production to sanitize food-contact surfaces and fresh fruits and vegetables.
An all-purpose cleaner is not an approved sanitizer for foodservice.
Chlorine, iodine, and quaternary ammonium (quats) are the three primary chemical sanitizers approved for use in foodservice.
Overview of the chemical sanitizers approved for foodservice
Sanitizers work the best when the surface is clean, but there are other factors that determine their effectiveness.
Here’s a quick look at the three chemical sanitizers approved for foodservice (1):
|Water temperature||Dependent on concentration and pH||68ºF (20ºC)||75ºF (24ºC)|
|Water pH||≤ 10||≤ 5||Dependent on manufacturer|
|Water hardness||Dependent on manufacturer||Dependent on manufacturer||≤ 500 ppm|
|Sanitizer concentration||25–100 ppm||12.5–25 ppm||Dependent on manufacturer|
|Sanitizer contact time||10 sec||30 sec||30 sec|
Sanitizers work the best when the surface is clean. The water temperature, water pH, water hardness, sanitizer concentration, and sanitizer contact time also influence the effectiveness and safety of sanitizers.
Other guidelines for safe sanitizer use
Keep these guidelines in mind when working with sanitizers (1):
- Always read the chemical sanitizer label before use.
- Do not combine different chemical sanitizing solutions.
- Hold cloths in a pale containing the chemical sanitizer solution between uses. Wash daily.
- Keep cloths that come in contact with raw animal food separate from cloths used for other purposes.
- Change the chemical solution often and when visibly dirty.
- Label spray bottles containing sanitizers that are not in their original container so they are not mistakenly used for something different.
- Store sanitizers and other chemicals separately from food and items that may come in contact with food.
Keep these other guidelines in mind to ensure safe and effective sanitization practices.
The bottom line
Sanitizers kill and reduce bacteria and other pathogens that may be on dishware, utensils, counters, food equipment, and other food-contact surfaces to safe levels.
You must wash food-contact surfaces and items with warm, soapy water, and then rinse them so that sanitizers can work effectively.
The three primary chemical sanitizers approved for foodservice include chlorine, iodine, and quaternary ammonium (quats), but other sanitizers are appropriate for foodservice too.
Several factors influence the effectiveness of these sanitizers so make sure to use them according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
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