Sterilization vs. Disinfection: Identifying a Professional Shop


Sterilization vs. Disinfection: Identifying a Professional Shop

by K. A. Kristmanson

The majority of clients are unaware that there is a very big difference between sterile and clean. Unfortunately, many who claim to be industry professionals have very little knowledge of this as well. This can be dangerous because of blood-borne pathogens like Hepatitis C and HIV.

I don’t claim to be the authority on bloodborne pathogens, sterilization procedures, or the like. This is a simple explanation of the stages/levels of shop hygiene and safety. If you want to be fully informed, attending a BBP course is a good place to start. If you are new to the industry, seek out a professional with 10+ years of experience to ensure that you get a good education on sterilization protocols. You should spend quite a bit of time cleaning up around the shop, scrubbing tools and running the ultrasonic and autoclave at the beginning of an apprenticeship. You should be practiced at these procedures before you ever touch a client.

Terms You Should Know:

Figure 1: Stovetop Autoclave; image by William Rafti of the William Rafti Institute [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons


The autoclave is a container where tools are sterilized by using high pressure and temperature. They come in many shapes and sizes, from the “stovetop autoclave” shown on the left, to much larger autoclaves used by hospitals to clean instruments in large quantities. In tattoo and piercing shops, you are likely to see either the stovetop or the—much nicer, in my opinion—autoclave pictured below.

Figure 2: Front Load Autoclave; image by Sterilgutassistentin (Own work) [GPL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Unless every tool used during all services is disposable (possible, but unlikely, because disposable materials can add up to be quite expensive in the long run), you should see one of these somewhere in a professional shop. To identify a standard tool from a disposable one, keep in mind that disposable gear is typically made of clear plastic, whereas autoclavable tools are made of metal.

Regardless, the tool should be taken out of a sealed package before it is placed on the tray.

Figure 3: Ultrasonic; image by William Rafti [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

The ultrasonic is an optional step, but most shops should have them as an extra measure to ensure client safety. This machine is used to soak the tools in a specific kind of solvent, after they have been scrubbed and rinsed. The ultrasonic emits high frequency vibrations to remove surface contaminants.

Hygiene & Safety Protocols: Sterile vs. Disinfected

Moving on, I’ll define the sterilization process by breaking it up into three parts: clean, disinfected, and sterilized.


The word “clean” is relative. Your laundry is clean when you wash it, and so is your counter when its disinfected with Lysol wipes. In the shop, clean probably refers to stacking magazines, putting supplies in their proper place, wiping down the counter, or Windex-ing glass surfaces. These protocols vary from shop to shop, because they are not crucial to client safety. You can think of it this way: cleaning means moving things around, whether they’re objects or bacteria. It’s the things you do to make the shop look presentable and professional.


Disinfection does a lot more than “cleaning” because it kills certain microscopic bacteria. Which kind of germs are killed depends on the type/level of disinfectant. Intermediate-level disinfectants like CaviCide attack bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis C and Tuberculosis. Other disinfectants are more common, like the bleach used to wash floors.

This step in the process is crucial to client safety, even in the sterilization room. In order for sterilization processes to be as effective as possible, inorganic and organic material must be removed from the surface of tools before they are placed in the autoclave. This requires soaking off any material that may be stuck to the object, gentle scrubbing, and then a good rinse to ensure that material is removed entirely. This does not make the tool sterile. There is still a possibility to transmit bloodborne diseases unless the tool is autoclaved.

As mentioned earlier, the ultrasonic is another great addition to ensuring maximum safety for your clients. Again, this does not sterilize objects.


An autoclave is used to achieve this critical and final step. Sterile means that an object is nearly completely free of bacteria. Using extremely high pressure and heat, bloodborne pathogens and other germs are killed so that they no longer pose a threat of infection when used on the next client. It is extremely important that this process is done properly, otherwise the entire process will be ineffective. Autoclaves must be tested monthly, to guarantee that they are in working order. These tests must be sent in to a lab, and the results are mailed back to the shop. Your artist or piercer should be able to provide proof of these tests upon request.

When you combine all three, you get a clean and safe shop!

Whether you’re a client, or a fledgling in this industry, I hope that this post answered some questions and made you feel more informed. If you want to know more, contact your local health board and request a package on sterilization and blood-borne pathogens. Check out next week’s post, where I’ll break down some more shop procedures!