In our Sterilization by Steam article and throughout our Sterilization Series, we've explained why autoclaving is the most efficient and effective sterilization method, particularly for use in tattoo and piercing shops. Pressurized steam applied via an autoclave kills any and all microorganisms clinging to the tattoo and piercing tools and body jewelry being sterilized. It takes less time and energy to sterilize objects in an autoclave than it does in a dry heat sterilizer. Autoclaving is a more foolproof sterilization method than a chemical bath, because it's locked down during sterilization and runs for a preset amount of time. All in all, autoclaving is the superior choice for sterilizing tattoo tools, piercing instruments and body jewelry. It isn't always the most economical choice for a small tattoo and piercing shop, though.
If you own a small tattoo and piercing shop and can't afford to purchase and maintain an autoclave, don't fret. Sterilization is an extremely important part of running a successful shop, but autoclaving isn't the only option for sterilizing your tools and body jewelry. There are a couple ways you can work around the issue of not having an autoclave.
Solution #1: Buy Pre-Sterilized Disposables
Fortunately, much of the tattoo and piercing equipment you need to do your job is now available in pre-sterilized, disposable form. Everything from tattoo needles to piercing needles, grip-tube-tip units to scalpel blades, skin markers to electrocautery pens, and beyond can be purchased pre-sterilized. Typically such items have been sterilized with EO (Ethylene Oxide) gas after being packaged in individual blister packs with special paper on one side that lets the EO gas permeate the packaging and sterilize its contents. An EtO indicator mark on each blister pack turns blue so that you know at a glance that the package's contents were successfully sterilized. EO gas-sterilized items like tattoo and piercing needles and disposable tubes will stay sterile either until the packaging is opened or until the expiration date printed on the packaging has passed.
Anytime you purchase tattoo tools, piercing tools or body jewelry from Painful Pleasures, we can sterilize the items for you, if desired. This is a great alternative for a shop that doesn't have its own autoclave, particularly when you're purchasing a small set of jewelry and/or tools in preparation for a specific mod you're scheduled to do. If you want us to sterilize any items you're purchasing, simply add a Sterilize My Jewelry option to cart for each item you need us to sterilize. You can specify which items you want us to sterilize in the Customer Notes section of the checkout process.
Purchasing large quantities of disposable, pre-sterilized products and/or having us sterilize specific items for you is a good solution if you can't afford an autoclave presently. Over time, though, purchasing an autoclave may be a more cost-effective option for you. Although it's a large expenditure initially, you can save money by using things like reusable grips instead of disposable tube-tip-grips and sterilizing them in an autoclave in between uses.
Solution #2: Clean Tools in an Ultrasonic Cleaner & Chemical Bath
In our Sterilization Methods article, we explained how chemical baths can be used to sterilize tattoo tools and piercing instruments. The primary issue with chemical baths as a sterilization method is the human element: People make mistakes. Sometimes people add tools to a chemical bath partway through a cycle, and sometimes they take tools out prematurely. That said, if you exercise extreme care in the way you clean your tools, there's no reason you can't successfully use chemical baths to sterilize your equipment.
Pre-cleaning is a major factor in the success of a subsequent chemical bath. Your tools need to be clean before they're sterilized. Basically, you need to scrub your tools under warm water, using appropriate brushes and detergents to clean them thoroughly. You can then put them through an ultrasonic cleaner cycle along with a product like Alconox to ensure that your tools are fully cleaned before you soak them in a chemical bath. To read about the best method for pre-cleaning tattoo tools and piercing instruments, check out our article, Proper Tattoo & Piercing Tool Maintenance.
Once your instruments are thoroughly cleaned, you can put them in a glutaraldehyde-based chemical bath to sterilize them. Put all of your instruments in a clean container, and cover them completely with Wavicide or a comparable product. Reference the cleaner's packaging to see how long you should keep your instruments submerged, and then set a timer to ensure that they stay in the chemical bath as long as is necessary to fully sterilize them. (Note: Using the EPA-approved quantitative method, WAVICIDE-01 kills M.tuberculosis in 45 minutes at room temperature.) Never add instruments to the bath after you've begun a cycle, and do not remove any instruments before the appropriate amount of time has passed.
Other Sterilization Alternatives
If you don't have access to an autoclave, the best thing you can do is to use pre-sterilized disposables and chemical baths to sterilize your reusable instruments. It may be tempting to think that some of the other sterilization alternatives posed online could work for you--suggestions like using a pressure cooker to sterilize your tattoo and piercing tools--but is it worth the risk? If you tried one of those alternatives and your clients suffered for it, you could have a costly lawsuit on your hands.
If you're wondering, a pressure cooker does work in a similar way to an autoclave, but the two things are far from comparable in terms of their abilities to effectively sterilize tattoo instruments and piercing tools. If you put your instruments on a wire rack inside a pressure cooker, added distilled water, sealed it, and ran it for 30 minutes at 250°F and 15 PSI, and then you repeated the process at least one more time to be safe, your instruments might be sterilized, but there's no way to know for certain. Plus, how would you go about drying everything out afterwards while keeping it sterile?
The concept of a pressure cooker as an alternative to an autoclave is fraught with problems. You'd have to run your instruments through multiple cycles to have any hope of sterilizing them thoroughly, which would cost you time while customers are waiting, and even after two cycles, there's no way to know that the items inside are fully sterilized. An autoclave will always run at the perfect combination of pressure, temperature and saturation to ensure that your instruments are fully sterilized and ready for use at the end of a single cycle. You can't tamper with the contents of an autoclave once the process has begun, either. It's a foolproof method for sterilizing tattoo and piercing equipment. A pressure cooker is not.
The only other alternative to an autoclave, pre-sterilized disposables and chemical baths that's worth considering is a dry heat sterilizer. Dry heat sterilizers can effectively sterilize tattoo and piercing tools, but they require more energy and time to do so. That means you'll have more downtime in between customers, and your energy bills will be higher. You usually can't sterilize as many instruments simultaneously in a dry heat sterilizer as you can in an autoclave, either. Plus, the cost to buy a dry heat sterilizer isn't much different than what you'd spend on an autoclave, but it'll cost you more in the long run. If you have the funds to invest in one or the other, go for an autoclave.
More Sterilization Information
If you're interested in learning more about sterilization methods, the benefits and drawbacks of each, sterilization classes, and other aspects of sterilization, check out these other articles from our Sterilization Series:
- Sterilization Methods
- Sterilization by Heat
- Sterilization by Steam
- Sterilization Classes
- Maintaining a Sterile Work Environment
You may also be interested in these blog posts on sterilization:
If you're looking for sterilization supplies, like sterilization pouches or nylon tubing, Wavicide, Alconox, or scrubbing brushes, shop in our Wholesale Store to take advantage of the reduced prices we offer industry professionals placing orders of $100-$499.99. When placing larger orders of $500 or more, shop in our Distributor Store for the lowest prices we offer industry professionals. Note that you can purchase some items in bulk to save even more. Price breaks are noted on each product detail page, above the "Add to Cart" button.