Your clients put their safety in your hands every day. Their trust is a gift that can make or break your business. That's why you have to put the best sterilization methods available to work in your shop. If you're not sure which methods you should be using or why, don't worry; we've explained the goal of sterilization and summarized the most common sterilization methods below, organized them by heat-based and non-heat sterilization methods, and highlighted the ones that you should and shouldn't consider utilizing.
The Goal of Sterilization
There are a variety of ways that you can sterilize body jewelry, tattoo and piercing tools, and other body modification instruments, but they all share one common purpose: to kill microorganisms. Microorganisms are like tiny enemy soldiers that hang out on your tools, jewelry, and any surface they can cling to while they bide their time, waiting to find their way into a moist crevice in a human body where they can make camp, gather reinforcements, and then wage war on their human host.
A small battalion of microorganisms may do little more than cause a minor infection that can be combated with sea salt solution soaks and TLC. A stronger regiment may cause an infection that requires an antibiotic to quell. However, left to their own devices long enough, these evil little soldiers can completely take over and cause much bigger issues, like necrosis (tissue death), long-term tissue damage, and serious illness in their human host.
As a shop owner, your primary duty to your clients is to captain the anti-microorganism army and use whatever sterilization methods are necessary to prevent evil microorganisms from taking up residence in your unsuspecting clients. Those methods can all be grouped into one of two categories: heat-based sterilization methods and non-heat sterilization methods.
There are five primary sterilization-by-heat methods: steam under pressure, dry heat, boiling, flaming, and incinerating. Of those, steam under pressure and dry heat are the only two methods that are appropriate for sterilizing equipment in a tattoo and piercing shop, and steam under pressure is the most commonly used of those two methods. Here's why:
- Steam Under Pressure - Autoclaves are the simplest, most effective option for using heat (in the form of pressurized steam) to clean tattoo supplies, piercing tools and body jewelry. The process involves packaging cleaned tools in sterilization pouches or heat-sealed nylon tubing, and steaming the items in an autoclave machine at the settings and for the time period specified in the autoclave's instructions.
- Dry Heat - Dry heat sterilizers essentially bake away microorganisms by cooking piercing and tattoo tools at 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 off 100% of microorganisms, so it is not a good method for sterilizing tools and jewelry in a shop. However, it may be one of the best options available to clients who want to clean jewelry at home, but who don't have access to an autoclave.
- Flame - At some point, practically everyone's used a flame to sterilize a needle before, say, removing a splinter. Sterilization by flame is the oldest method around, but it's not necessarily the safest, most precise sterilization method, and therefore it isn't a good option to use in your shop. It's much safer for your clients if you use disposable tattoo needles and piercing needles that have been sterilized with EO gas (one of the non-heat sterilization methods detailed below) and tools that have been sterilized precisely with an autoclave.
- Incineration - The process of incineration doesn't just kill microorganisms; it completely destroys whatever's being burned. This is an effective means for disposing of certain medical and laboratory waste--if you have the expensive setup needed to safely incinerate such waste, that is. It's definitely not a good method for sterilizing things you want to use again, like metal tattoo grips.
Non-Heat Sterilization Methods
There are three vehicles used to sterilize tattoo and piercing supplies that don't involve heat:
- Gas - Typically, tattoo and piercing needles are sterilized with Ethylene Oxide gas. The items to be sterilized are packaged individually in blister packs with special paper on one side that permits the EO gas to permeate through the packaging and sterilize the item inside each package. An EtO indicator mark on each blister pack turns blue to indicate a successful sterilization process. Each EO gas-sterilized item stays sterile until the package is opened or until the expiration date on the packaging.
- Chemicals - Chemical sterilization of tattoo and piercing supplies typically involves using gluteraldehyde-based chemical cleaners. You have to be very careful to leave tools in a gluteraldehyde bath long enough (per the instructions the come with the cleaning agent). Also, if you use this method, don't make the mistake of adding tools to the bath partway through the cycle. There's a lot of room for error with this sterilization method, and for that reason, autoclaves are still considered the superior method for sterilizing tools in a shop setting.
- 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.
More Than Your Method Matters
Unfortunately, you can't just throw your tools into an autoclave or a chemical bath and call them sterile. Your sterilization efforts will only ever be as effective as your pre-sterilization efforts are thorough. It's important to clean your tools well before you sterilize them, using things like detergents, brushes and ultrasonic cleaners to get the job done thoroughly.
We detail one way you can clean your tools in our article Proper Tattoo & Piercing Tool Maintenance. You can read more about the cleaners and tools available to you in our article, Maintaining a Sterile Work Environment, too. Also stay tuned for the next installments in our Sterilization Series, including our upcoming spotlight on ultrasonic cleaners, why you should have one for your shop, and how to get the most out of your ultrasonic cleaner.
More From Our Sterilization Series
We take a closer look at sterilization by heat, steam sterilization, sterilization alternatives, and other related topics in these other articles from our Sterilization Series: