Tag Archives: Sterilization Methods

Tattoo Sterilization vs Disposable Tattoo Equipment

Traditionally an autoclave sterilizer was considered to be indispensable piece of equipment that every reputable tattoo studio owned. Tattooists and piercers (or their apprentices) would spend many an hour soaking, scrubbing and cleaning their tools, prepping them to be bagged for the autoclave. Our sterilizers would then run their cycle, making our tools safe for use on the next client. Over the last 20 years a vast array of products adapted from the medical and dental industries have been introduced to our industry to augment and improve the cleaning regiment. Other tattoo savvy products have also sprung up to help us clean more safely and efficiently. To present even more options, many pre-sterile, single use, individually packaged products can now be added to our arsenal. Tattooers and piercers today are presented with an almost dizzying variety of tools for their trade.
When looking for a tattoo shop to patronize, some of our potential clients have been instructed by friends and family to ask to see the studio autoclave. Most of the “what to look for in a tattoo studio” or “things to consider before visiting a tattoo shop” articles recommend that the client ask to see the sterilization equipment. Until recently, every respectable shop had one. This idea has been widely challenged within the last 10 to 15 years. Specifically, in the last 5 years, we have seen a minority of studios dumping the ‘clave and going all sterile. Many shops now boast “completely disposable equipment” in their advertisements. We have seen a shift from the traditional popular opinion for some tattooers away from the traditional sterilization model. I wanted to explore some of the pros and cons of both sides of this argument.

A Stitch in Time
I sat down to write out some arguable points for both sides of this debate, and the first thing I scribbled was “saving time”. One major advantage of pre-sterilized tattoo equipment would certainly be more time to work. I think any successful shop (or any business for that matter) would agree time is money. Tattoos are often priced based on the amount of time the client will need to sit. If a busy artist spends 3 hours a week cleaning his equipment, and charged $100 per hour for tattoos, he or she would stand to earn an additional $300 a week by doing away with scrubbing, prepping, bagging and claving tools. More free time may yield more appointments. Even if that time was not dedicated to more tattooing, it would mean more time to clean the shop, help customers, prep artwork, or peruse Facebook (for the less ambitious). However the time was spent, most would agree that prepping tools for the ‘clave is not the best way to spend a Friday night.

First Impressions
The second pro for an all disposable setup would be savvier presentation. An all disposable shop would have less clutter. Cut out the ‘clave, and you cut out ultrasonics buzzing, dirty grips soaking, tubs or containers of tools waiting in piles, ‘claves needing cleaned, stacks of sterilization pouches, spore test strips, cleaning brushes, and the like. If you use a chemi-clave, you no longer need the chemicals. We can eliminate ‘clave cleaners, alconox, and whatever cleaner you prefer for scrubbing your grips. We also have now created a shop with less movement. No more running to the ‘clave room to get the right setup out of the last batch. Not only have you tidied up the shop and calmed it down, you have also lost the above expenses. Any successful business model will show that less cost means more profit.

This brings us to price. Traditional steel and nylon grips are reusable. Proper cleaning and the occasional replacement thumb screw, and a quality grip can last a long time. Traditional steel grip, tip, and tube combos average around $15 from most suppliers. Disposable combos run $.75 to $1 each on average. Switching from steel to pre-sterile would equate to buying a new steel setup every 12 to 15 sessions. Most artists think about the enormous added expense going disposable would likely bring. What most of us have not considered is how we would save more in other areas. For example, no sterile pouches, alconox, ‘clave cleaner, monthly spore test, and scrubbing cleanser. Gloves used during cleaning are not gone, no more tube brushes, gaskets and clave seals no longer need replaced. At our shops we take our ‘claves in for an annual checkup, which runs are $250 per ‘clave. Like a car inspection, our ‘clave is looked over to make sure everything is functioning properly. Add all these costs in with the amount of time per week spent cleaning, prepping, and sorting gear, and it is arguable that the increased costs of pre-sterile combos would be offset by the associated savings.

Hug a Tree
Many advocates of traditional sterilization cite the added waste associated with disposable grips. Bulky combos would fill up sharps containers and trash cans, causing more harm than good to the eco-system. I spoke with local recycling companies and was told that if properly organized and disinfected, plastic combos could be placed in recycling containers alongside water bottles and soda containers. The recycling process would insure than any contaminant would be more than eliminated, and the testing performed during the process is designed to catch and eliminate any anomalies. Whether pre-sterile or traditional, pouches are an unavoidable waste in the tattooing process. However the EO gas process that is popularly used with the plastic pre-combo does allow for smaller packaging than we often see used with traditional grips, so the waste may be a bit less for pre-sterile setups.

“If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself!”
One of the strongest arguments against the use of pre-sterile tools is sterilization integrity. When using a pre-sterile item, we are left to only trust that our supplier is using a safe and sound process. Certainly no reputable supplier would conscientiously mislabel or cheat the sterilization process, but as an end user we ultimately have no way of guaranteeing the validity of the product without re-sterilizing. And that would completely defeat the purpose of buying pre-sterile. The only way to be sure an item was properly sterilized would be to be present for the entire process. However, as a reseller that has sold hundreds of thousands of pre-sterile grip and tip combos, needles, and tools, I feel more than confident in our line of sterile items. We use these products daily in our shop and sell them to shops all over the world.

“The Times They Are a Changin”
Traditional tattoo apprenticeships often involve the idea of paying your dues and showing respect to the tattoo industry. In some professional tattooers eyes, this means cleaning a lot of sh*t! If a shop were all sterile, would the impact of the apprenticeship on the student change? Some argue that by losing the autoclave we are also losing sight of part of the history of tattooing, and thereby undermining the integrity of the industry.

Old School
While it is certainly becoming a lost art as the years pass, there are still many tattooers who are jigging their own needles, mixing their own pigment, and the like. As more time passes these tattoo secrets may ultimately become lost in the myriad of pre-sterile, ready-made, mass produced products. Whereas 20 years ago a studio without an autoclave would be something to scorn, sterilization improvements have made the idea almost cutting edge. It is my personal opinion that the tattoo industry has been poised on a defining threshold for the last 15 years, a kind of industry revolution. Improvements in design, manufacture, and application have changed the industry dramatically. Some may say for better, others for worse but it is certainly an exciting time for tattooing. I, for one, am anxious to see what the future holds.

This debate ends with the same answer as many others in our industry. Tattooing and piercing are at their purest interpretive art-forms. There are many different brushes and paints that can yield beautiful results. The right tool is decided by the artist. No one tool works best for all artists. I think that whatever makes the tattooer feel most comfortable in delivering a quality piece of work is the best choice.

Paul Sorrels, CEO
717 Tattoo & Body Piercing Studios – Two locations in Central PA – online at www.717tattoo.com
Razorblade Products, Inc – Tattoo, Piercing, & Medical Supplies by Professionals for Professionals, online at www.Razorblade.Pro

Body Jewelry Material – Bamboo

This article is from the Piercing FAQ, by Anne Greenblatt with numerous contributions by others.

2A.3b Bamboo

Bamboo is not a wood but a grass. Several thousand different species
exist, ranging from tiny plants to huge towering trees. Many species
are light yellow, tan, or green; some can be purplish or black. Most
species are solid in color; some can be striped or spotted.

Bamboo stalks are hollow and segmented with solid portions of culm.
Bamboo is lightweight; its cross-section may be round, oval, or
slightly cardioid (heart-shaped). The outside of the bamboo is
naturally smooth and protective and should not be removed to make
plugs. The inside is normally whitish and may have a papery lining
which is usually removed or is shed over time.

Body Jewelry Materials – Hardwoods

This article is from the Piercing FAQ, by Anne Greenblatt with numerous contributions by others.

2A.3a Hardwoods

Hardwoods are most often used to make plugs for enlarged piercings,
such as ear lobe, labret, and septum piercings. Hardwoods are natural
materials that work in harmony with the body. They can “breathe” with
a piercing and allows an interchange of oils. Wood stays warmer than
metals. Wood does not develop the bad odor plastics can develop.

Hardwoods are broad-leafed, deciduous trees (angiospermous). The term “hardwood” does not actually refer to hardness: for example, balsa is a hardwood. The part of the tree normally used is the center
heartwood, normally darker and denser than the surrounding sapwood.

A few species of wood commonly used for jewelry, furniture and inlays
are endangered or threatened. These species are regulated by CITES,
the Center for International Trade of Endangered Species. Endangered
species include Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra). Threatened
species include Mexican mahogany (Swietenia humilis) and Carribean
mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni), Commoner (Guaiacum officinale), and
Holywood lignum vitae aka “Tree of Life” (Guaiacum sanctum), Bigleaf
mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), and American mahogany (Swietenia
meliaceae). In some cases, wood from threatened species is acquired by salvage or through sustainable harvesting.

Grain (fibers within the wood) is considered either open or closed.
Open-grained woods may collect bacteria, shed skin tissue, and dirt
and hence generally should not be used for jewelry.

The overall shape and dimensions of the piece should be consistent and
appropriate for the particular piercing with room to allow for
possible swelling. The finish should be free from scratches, pits or
tool marks. The piece should be free of raised grain (wood fibers),
even when wet. Luster varies from species to species and the wood may or may not shine. An oiled plug will appear dull.

Because hardwoods are porous and readily absorb and release moisture,
oil, and bacteria, hardwood plugs are best worn in healed piercings
and dry areas of the body. Because hardwood jewelry cannot be
sterilized it should always be handled by clean hands and only worn by
one person. Autoclaving hardwood jewelry may cause it to crack, split,
and warp. Hardwood jewelry should be cleaned regularly with a
non-chemical soap that is safe for the body. Tea Tree oil can also be
used; prior to use a patch test is recommended to test for
allergy. Hardwood jewelry should be oiled after cleaning to benefit
the skin and aid insertion.

The type of finish applied is usually an oil and sometimes a sealant.
Many finishing oils and sealing products contain chemicals, toxins,
solvents, petroleum or animal products, or pigments. Using a finish
that entirely seals a hardwood plug eliminates the purpose of wearing
wood. I usually recommend a non-toxic oil or wax. Food grade oils such
as olive and peanut are generally safe but may break down (turn
rancid) with heat and time; pieces finished using food grade oils
should be washed and re-oiled periodically to avoid turning
rancid. Waxes can be animal or vegetable based; waxes may come off
with heat or be rubbed off while cleaning. I do not recommend using
pigment as most are chemical or solvent based and can fade or enter
the bloodstream.

Some people are allergic to certain hardwoods. A sensitivity to
hardwoods can also be acquired with exposure. The risk of developing a
sensitivity to certain hardwoods is increased for those who work with
the woods by way of the dust which is produced in the production
process. The hardwoods likely to cause allergic reactions include all
woods within the Dalbergia genera, or the rosewoods: African blackwood
(Dalbergia melanoxylon), Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra),
Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa), Indian rosewood, aka Bombay blackwood
(Dalbergia latifolia), Kingwood aka Violetwood (Dalbergia cearensis),
Tulipwood (Dalbergia frutescus), Teak (Tectona grandis), Purpleheart
aka Amaranth (Peltogyne spp.); and possibly Greenheart and Satinwood
(Chloroxylon swietenia). Some woods may be very hard to identify; for
example, African blackwood can masquerade as ebony.