There are a variety of ways to sterilize body jewelry, tattoo supplies and piercing tools. You could boil your jewelry, but would that get rid of 100% of the microorganisms clinging to it? Microorganisms are sneaky, and they'll do anything they can to find a human host where they can multiply and declare war on a body. Whether you realize it or not, your tattoo artist and piercer are constantly battling microorganisms on your behalf–sterilizing their tools and using sterile needles to ensure your safety. How do they do it? Here's an inside peak at the most common sterilization methods used in tattoo and piercing shops:
In-Shop Sterilization Methods
Boiling your jewelry may be the only way you can sterilize your jewelry at home, but in a shop, boiling is not an option because it doesn't kill 100% of microorganisms. It's much more effective for your tattoo artist or piercer to use an autoclave to sterilize your starter jewelry and any tools s/he may need before giving you a new mod.
Autoclaves come in a variety of sizes and with varying features, but at their core, they all do the same thing–they use pressurized steam to completely destroy microorganisms. Autoclaves can be used to sterilize a wide variety of things, including body jewelry made of surgical stainless steel, titanium, other metals, and even BioPlast. Piercers can sterilize tools like ring opening and closing pliers in autoclaves, and tattoo artists can sterilize their reusable metal grips and other tattoo supplies in them.
Autoclaves are by far the best sterilization tool for tattoo and piercing shops, but there are other sterilization methods and tools some shops prefer to use. Your shop may use a dry heat sterilizer or even chemical baths as alternatives to sterilize their tools and the body jewelry they use in new piercings. These are also effective sterilization tools when properly utilized. The only downside with chemical baths is that you never know if all tools and jewelry stayed in the bath long enough or if any tools were added partway through the process, which would contaminate everything already in the bath and yield no completely sterilized items. Machines, like autoclaves and dry heat sterilizers, are much more foolproof means of sterilizing shop supplies. Most autoclaves lock while the chamber is pressurized and the contents are being steamed, so you don't have to worry about the contents only being half sterilized.
Other Methods for Sterilizing Supplies
Chances are, the tattoo and piercing shop you frequent doesn't sterilize everything they use on-site. It's common for tattoo and piercing artists to purchase many supplies pre-sterilized. Things like tattoo needles, piercing needles, disposable tattoo tubes, and many other items are available in individual blister packs that have, more often than not, been sterilized with EO gas. EO stands for Ethylene Oxide, which can be blasted into a contained environment filled with individually-wrapped supplies like piercing needles. The blister packs have special paper backings that allow the EO gas to permeate and sterilize the contents of each blister pack. If the sterilization process is effective, an EtO indicator mark on the packaging will turn blue.
Your tattoo and piercing artists most likely use a combination of an autoclave and pre-sterilized tools to ensure your safety when giving you new mods, but don't assume anything when it comes to your safety. Don't be afraid to ask your body modification artist which method they use for sterilizing tools and jewelry on-site. When you're checking out a new shop, we even recommend asking to see the shop's autoclave or other sterilization device (see our Choosing a Piercer article). If you're going in for a piercing, you may not even have to ask, since many piercers sterilize everything right in front of their clients in a cassette autoclave like a Statim or a Tuttnauer ValueKlave.
With your artist's blessing, and while donning a pair of gloves, you should also be able to look over the piercing needles and other items being used for your modification and confirm that they're either EO gas-sterilized or still sealed in the sterilization pouches they were placed in before being autoclaved. With the EO gas-sterilized items, you can confirm that they're safe by finding (a) a blue EtO indicator mark on each blister pack, and (b) an expiration date that hasn't yet passed. (EO gas-sterilized products are only guaranteed to stay sterile for a specific period of time.)
Finally, to ensure that all tools and other items being used in a modification you're getting are sterile, they should be removed from their sterilization pouches or blister packs in front of you, immediately before they're used. (Note: If your piercer autoclaves your jewelry in a cassette-style autoclave, the components probably won't be in sterilization pouches. In this case, the tray should be opened in front of you.) If you walk into a room and see a tray of unpackaged tools, needles not still in their blister packs, and/or jewelry that you can't confirm was just autoclaved, make a U-turn and find another shop that cares about your safety enough to keep everything sealed and sterile until the moment it's needed.
To learn more about why sterilization matters, the various sterilization methods available, the benefits and drawbacks of each, and why some methods work better in tattoo and piercing shops than others, read our article, Sterilization Methods.