It’s absolutely essential for tattoo and piercing professionals to know, understand and practice correct sterilization procedures. Correct sterilization, alongside good hand hygiene and shop cleanliness, will help ensure that your clients stay safe and healthy and that you avoid any legal trouble that could threaten your business and your livelihood. But there are many different sterilization methods available, and they’re not all equally effective or economical. If you’re looking for answers about sterilization methods, equipment or supplies, you’re in the right place.
Disinfection vs. Sterilization
Though many people use the terms “disinfect” and “sterilize” interchangeably, they do not mean exactly the same thing. Although both disinfection and sterilization decontaminate a surface, object or area, the difference is in the degree to which they achieve that goal. Cleaning with a disinfectant spray, wipe or solution will kill most viruses and fungi, but it might not kill all bacteria, especially bacterial spores. For that reason, disinfecting is insufficient when it comes to cleaning any tattoo and piercing equipment that will come into direct contact with a client’s skin.
On the other hand, sterilization destroys all microorganisms. Sterilization is much more difficult than disinfection and requires specialized tools and supplies. But in medical and body modification settings, where open wounds that render people more susceptible to infection are unavoidable, it is absolutely necessary to sterilize tools and hardware to ensure they pose no risk of contamination.
Tattoo Shop Sterilization Methods
The most common piece of sterilization equipment in tattoo and piercing shops is an autoclave. Autoclaves come in a variety of sizes and with varying features, but they all do the same basic thing: use pressurized steam to completely destroy microorganisms. Autoclaves can be used to sterilize a wide variety of body modification tools and supplies including most metallic body jewelry, forceps and pliers, and metallic tattoo grips, tubes and tips. Most plastics and all electronics are not autoclavable. If you’re unsure whether a specific item can or should be autoclaved, check the manufacturer’s specifications or contact them directly.
Autoclaves are by far the best and simplest sterilization tool for tattoo and piercing shops. Because they are automated and lock while in use, you can feel absolutely confident that your tools are fully sterilized after being autoclaved (as long as you’ve set everything up correctly). But there are some other sterilization methods and tools that might be more appropriate or economical for certain artists or shops. In general, sterilization is achieved in one of two ways: with heat, or without it.
Heat-Based Sterilization Methods
- Pressurized Steam: As described above, autoclaves use pressurized steam to sterilize tattoo supplies, piercing tools and body jewelry. The process involves packaging pre-cleaned tools (it is necessary to remove any blood, grime or other visible material on the object surface prior to autoclaving, since they may shield the surface below from sterilization) in special sterilization pouches, then steaming them in an autoclave machine at a prescribed temperature, pressure and duration of time. The combination of heat and pressure allows autoclaves to achieve sterilization much more quickly and reliably than other methods.
- Dry Heat: Dry heat sterilization removes microorganisms from surfaces by exposing them to high temperatures. This is the best option for sterilizing items that can’t withstand moisture, like powders or tools that are susceptible to corrosion.
- Boiling: Boiling doesn’t kill 100% of microorganisms, so it isn’t an appropriate method for sterilizing tools and jewelry in a tattoo or piercing shop. For clients who want to sterilize their jewelry at home, however, it is an accessible and generally effective option.
- Flame: Sterilization by fire is certainly the oldest method around, but it’s far from the safest, most precise or most consistent. You should never use flame to sterilize your tattoo and piercing equipment. If you can’t afford or don’t have space for an autoclave or dry heat sterilizer, you should use pre-sterilized, disposable tattoo and piercing needles instead.
Non-Heat Sterilization Methods
- Gas: Sterilization by exposure to ethylene oxide (EO) gas is by far the most common non-heat sterilization method used in the tattooing and piercing industry. All disposable, single-use tattoo and piercing tools are sterilized using this method. The items to be sterilized are individually packaged in blister packs made of special paper that permits the EO gas to permeate through one side. An EO indicator inside the package turns blue to indicate successful sterilization, and the contents will remain sterile until the package is opened or until the expiration date on the packaging.
- Chemicals: Chemical sterilization involves immersing tattoo and piercing supplies in a glutaraldehyde-based chemical cleaner for a specific amount of time, typically many hours. While effective, this method leaves ample room for error. Aside from soaking items for an insufficient length of time, adding new items to a chemical bath that’s in process can potentially re-contaminate the ones already in it. Unless you are trained and comfortable with this process, we recommend sticking with an autoclave or disposables.
- Radiation: There are two radiation-based sterilization methods: ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation. The first method kills microorganisms using gamma rays or x-rays (i.e. short wavelength, high-intensity radiation). Non-ionizing radiation uses ultraviolet light to sterilize surfaces. It can’t sterilize an object all the way through because it uses non-penetrating lower energy with a longer wavelength.
Keep in mind that most tattoo and piercing shops don’t sterilize everything they use on-site. It’s common for tattoo and piercing artists to reduce costs and increase efficiency by autoclaving or sterilizing some tools while relying on pre-sterilized disposables for others. Many of today’s body modification artists prefer affordable, single-use tattoo needles, piercing needles and tattoo tubes sterilized using the gas sterilization method described above.
There are various ways to check that items subjected to sterilization processes have been completely sterilized. These indicators are divided into different classes, which provide different types and varying degrees of information. To understand the value and purpose of each of these classes, you first have to know the difference between chemical and biological indicators.
- Chemical indicators for sterilization: Chemical indicators can also be called process indicators, and their purpose is to confirm that an item has undergone sterilization. For example, sterilization pouches contain external chemical indicators that change color when exposed to either steam or EO gas. Similar indicators can also be sealed into the packages prior to sterilization for an extra degree of certainty.
- Biological indicators for sterilization: Instead of detecting sterilization processes, biological indicators detect the presence of microorganisms themselves.
Indicators are grouped into one of six different classes depending on their type and specific function. For example, some chemical indicators test only for temperature, while others test only for pressure. Tattoo and piercing artists don’t rely on just one type or class of indicator. Instead, they use a combination of indicators to provide multi-layered assurance that their sterilization process has been effectively completed. In addition to using sterilization indicators each time you run a sterilization process, you should check your autoclave and sterilization area for spores and bacteria at least once every few weeks using a biological indicator to ensure they’re working properly.
Keeping It Clean
While sterilization tools and processes might seem confusing at first, most artists find that they quickly become second nature because they use them so frequently. It’s certainly a subject worth taking the time to master, since your clients’ health and your reputation are on the line. Whenever a client sees you for a piercing or tattoo, they are trusting you to keep them safe. If you value your craft and your career, you will honor and respect that trust. That includes explaining or showing prospective clients your sterilization equipment and procedures if they request it, including the results of your latest spore test. Whether you sterilize your own equipment or rely on pre-sterilized disposables, be sure you always open each sterilization pouch or blister pack immediately before use, in the presence of the client, to ensure transparency and peace of mind.
Whether you’re just beginning a career in body modification or are simply looking for a new autoclave or other disinfectant supplies, shop with PainfulPleasures to find the most trustworthy brands in the industry at some of the best prices you’ll find online.