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Sterilization Procedures in Tattooing

Jason Goodrow, otherwise known as "the Goodboy," is a tattoo artist offering free advice.


Sterilization and Cleaning Procedures

There are thousands of shops in the U.S. with tattooist’s performing the ancient old art of tattooing.

Each state typically has specific sterilization procedures that need to be adhered to. The shop also needs to be maintaining 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 be providing information about correct sterilization procedures, as well as alternative methods available, if expensive equipment cannot be purchased.


Common Types

There are several methods of sterilizing your equipment. Many of those are straightforward, but attention to detail and having a strong work ethic is important when it comes to maintaining your equipment. You need to be very aware of the fact that you are the line of defense when it comes to spreading blood-borne diseases. This means doing it right every time you clean and sterilize.

Here are four types of sterilization typically used within the tattoo community:

  1. Steam
  2. Gas
  3. Cold sterilization
  4. Dry heat

1. Steam

Steam is the most commonly used form of tattoo sterilization. It is relatively affordable to purchase a steam producing autoclave and very easy to maintain.

Autoclave built for using steam looks very similar to a pressure cooker. However, there are noticeable differences.

  • Prices range from just a couple hundred dollars to several thousand.
  • The steam-clave uses water that is heated and then produces steam. This steam is caught within the steam-clave and pressure is built 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 not sterilizing your equipment.
  • Note: The sterilization pouches have built-in indicators that change colors when successful sterilization has been achieved.

2. Gas

Gas sterilization is typically used amongst the medical community due to the chemical ethylene oxide used in this type of procedure. That is not to say that it is not available to tattoo shop owners as it is.

These types of autoclaves are generally expensive—they generally range from eighteen hundred dollars to several thousand. This is a very quick and guaranteed way to sterilize your equipment. However, the start-up cost is high.

3. Cold

Cold sterilization is honestly the strangest form I have researched. This method is generally used on temperature-sensitive items, with the product you would usually use in liquid form. It takes from 8 hours up to 24 hours, depending on the product you choose.

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 used an autoclave to complete the sterilization process, that would be a safe method to practice, in my opinion.

4. Dry Heat

This is the cheapest method of sterilization. Most dry heat sterilizers look like mini bake ovens that use heat elements to boost the temperature, quickly eliminating most forms of bacteria.

  • This method is no longer recognized as a form of medical sterilization. However, it is still used to sterilize items like clay, powders, and various pigments.
  • If you are learning to tattoo your friends or family, but you don't have the finances to purchase a steam-based autoclave, purchase a French toaster oven instead. Make sure it can reach at least 400 degrees. Once that has been reached, your tubes will need to cook for at least an hour before becoming sterilized. Note: Do not use this method to sterilize heat-sensitive items!

Step-by-Step Cleaning of Your Tattoo Tubes and Tips

Here is a simple list on how to clean and sterilize your tattoo grips and tubes.

  1. Insert the tattoo grips and tubes into an ultrasonic machine with an appropriate cleaning solution, and run it for 30 minutes.
  2. 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.
  3. Rinse and dry them.
  4. Insert them into proper sterilization pouches, and seal according to instruction.
  5. Insert the sealed sterilization pouches into a steam-clave and run for 30 minutes
  6. Remove from the steam-clave and place it on a cooling rack until they can be put away.

Remember guys, if you don’t have an ultrasonic cleaner, don’t worry! Just be diligent and clean any specs of tattoo ink or blood that may be on your equipment. Be diligent and keep good habits. The pay off is a great reputation for cleanliness, and that means more customers.

Wrapping Up

I have provided some cursory information on this topic. When it comes to sterilizing your equipment, understanding how to do so is vital, but achieving sterilization is the most important aspect of 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 : violet.marie.7169@gmail.com 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