Jason Goodrow, otherwise known as "the Goodboy," is a licensed tattoo artist who shares his expertise with the world in his articles.
Tattoo Sterilization and Cleaning Procedures
Tattooing is an ancient art, one performed in thousands of shops in the U.S. But lately, things have changed, and state-of-the-art technology has had a significant impact on product, practice, and policy. Today, each state has its own rules, regulations, and specific sterilization procedures that need to be followed. The modern shop also needs to maintain proper records of each sterilization procedure done. If negligence or reports of improper maintenance of equipment is found, it is the city's health department's responsibility to enforce those laws.
In this article, I will. . .
- provide information about sterilization procedures,
- give alternative methods (if expensive equipment cannot be purchased),
- guide you through the steps of using a steam autoclave to clean your tubes and tips, and
- answer some frequently asked questions about the procedures.
4 Basic Methods for Sterilizing Equipment
There are several methods of sterilizing your equipment. They all work, but diligence and attention to detail is important when it comes to maintaining your equipment, and if you don't follow through properly, no method will work. You must always be aware of the fact that you are the first and last line of defense when it comes to spreading blood-borne diseases. This means doing it right every time you clean and sterilize.
There are four types of sterilization typically used within the tattoo community:
- Cold sterilization
- Dry heat
Steam is the most commonly used method of tattoo sterilization. It is relatively affordable to purchase a steam-producing autoclave, and autoclaves are very easy to maintain. Prices range from just a couple hundred dollars to several thousand.
An autoclave is built for using steam and looks very similar to a pressure cooker. However, there are noticeable differences.
How a Steam Autoclave (Steam-Clave) Works
- The steam-clave heats water to produce steam. This steam is caught within the steam-clave and pressure builds within that container.
- You must achieve a minimum pressure of 12 pounds in order to eliminate harmful bacteria or blood-borne diseases.
- It should be run for 30 minutes at a minimum of 12 pounds of pressure. Failure to do so results in a failure to sterilize the equipment.
- Note: The sterilization pouches have built-in indicators that change colors when successful sterilization has been achieved.
Ethylene oxide, a colorless and flammable gas, is used in this method. Gas sterilization is typically used amongst the medical community, but it is also available to tattoo shop owners.
These types of autoclaves are generally expensive—they generally range from eighteen hundred dollars to several thousand. This is a very quick and surefire way to sterilize your equipment. However, the start-up cost is high.
Cold sterilization is honestly the strangest method, in my opinion. Here, items are be immersed in liquid chemicals (approved by the EPA), usually including glutaraldehydes, peracetic acid, and hydrogen peroxide-based concoctions. This method is most often used in dentistry, and it takes from 8 to 24 hours, depending on the chemical you use.
I have never used this method myself, and I feel that any item that has come into contact with blood needs to be autoclaved. However, if a person were to use this as a pre-cleaning method and then use an autoclave to complete the sterilization process, that would probably be a safe method, in my opinion.
4. Dry Heat
This is the cheapest method of sterilization. Most dry heat sterilizers look like those mini-bake ovens that use heat elements to boost the temperature, eliminating most forms of bacteria. For it to work, you must maintain a temperature of 400°F for at least 2 hours.
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This method is no longer recognized as a form of medical sterilization, and is not recommended for tattooists. However, it is still used to sterilize items like clay, powders, and various pigments.
What's the Safest Method of Sterilization?
Moist heat (steam autoclave) is the most effective way, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Step-by-Step Guide to Cleaning Your Tattoo Tubes and Tips
Here is a simple list of instructions for how to clean and sterilize your tattoo grips and tubes.
- Insert the tattoo grips and tubes into an ultrasonic machine with an appropriate cleaning solution and run it for 30 minutes.
- Remove them from the machine and inspect them. If any tattoo ink or blood is visible, use tube brushes and liquid soap to scrub any residue left within the tube.
- Rinse and dry.
- Insert them into proper sterilization pouches and seal according to instruction.
- Insert the sealed sterilization pouches into a steam-clave and run for 30 minutes.
- Remove from the steam-clave and place on a cooling rack until they can be used.
Remember, if you don’t have an ultrasonic cleaner, don’t worry! Just be diligent and clean any specks of tattoo ink or blood that may be on your equipment. Be diligent and keep good habits. The payoff is a great reputation for cleanliness, and that means more customers.
Can You Sterilize Tattoo Equipment Without an Autoclave?
If you don't have an autoclave, don't have pre-sterilized disposables, and can't combine ultrasonic cleaning with a chemical bath, your only option is dry heat, which can be used to sterilize equipment but takes a lot more effort, time, and diligence to do properly.
Should I Use Dry Heat to Sterilize Tattoo Equipment?
Attempting to sterilize with dry heat takes longer, requires more effort, isn't as foolproof, and costs about the same as buying an autoclave. This method won't save you money in the long run, either, since the cost of an effective and trustworthy dry heat sterilizer is about the same as the cost of an autoclave. Because there's no proof it worked no matter how careful you are, there's no guarantee it'll be 100% sterile. Factor in the cost of a lawsuit and damages if you hurt your client with improper sterilization and it makes sense just to buy the autoclave if you're serious about tattooing.
What Is the Difference Between Disinfection and Sterilization?
Disinfection does reduce infection risk but it doesn’t eliminate it entirely. It can greatly reduce the amount of bacteria on an object, but there's no guarantee it eliminates all bacteria. Sterilization, on the other hand, can completely eliminate all bacteria and potentially harmful microorganisms, if performed correctly.
Can I Pre-Sterilize My Equipment?
Air is not sterile. For a sterilized object to remain sterile, it must be kept in an air-tight and sterile container.
I have provided some cursory information on this topic. When it comes to sterilizing your equipment, understanding exactly how to do so is vital and achieving sterilization is the most important aspect of ensuring a client's health.
I hope the material above was helpful and informative. I really want to stress that cleanliness is very important. You don’t want to be responsible for giving someone an infection. Lawsuits are painful for your business reputation, and will quickly put you out of business.
Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, I will gladly answer your questions!
© 2012 Jason Goodrow
Martin Beamer on April 17, 2018:
Thank you for the great tips, I am using a French oven. I place my tubes on a tray and tin foil underneath because my tray is beat up. Will the foil damage my tubes?
violet on October 26, 2016:
I am a young artist and hoping to get into tattooing. I am just learning about all of the responsibilities and importance of tattooing. I was taught incorrectly by a man that had no clue what he was doing and I am now looking for the right guidance.I was really wondering a lot more about the gas sterilization process? and cold sterilization process? if any body could give me some help that would be great thank you. here is my email if any one would like to give me advice : firstname.lastname@example.org thank you – violet marie
guyboriblog on September 06, 2016:
good blog. I've seen an infection from bad tattoo and its look horrible, people may have to cover up or remove it which I think they don't want to
kingcobra1310 on July 24, 2016:
Hi there, I'm new to this forum and soon to be self teaching myself in the beautiful art of tattooing and following in the footsteps of one of my uncles who was a tattooist. I have a question to ask you, if you don't mind me asking. Can you use a stovetop pressure cooker as an autoclave for sterilizing your tattoo equipment if you don't have a proper autoclave?
kingcobra1310 on July 24, 2016:
Can you use a pressure cooker as an autoclave for strilizing tattoo equipment if you don't have a proper one? If you don't mind me asking