What is an autoclave?

An autoclave is a device used in the medical, piercing and tattoo industry for sterilizing jewellery and equipment. This means that all bacteria, viruses, fungi, and spores are destroyed. Sterilization is absolute; there is no such thing as “partial sterilization” – something is either sterile or non-sterile.

How important is an autoclave in the piercing industry?

The importance of your health, and the prevention of infectious (and potentially terminal) diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis C, is the fundamental purpose of autoclaving body piercing jewellery and tools. Autoclaves are absolutely essential for all piercing and tattoo studios without exception, for safe practice and to conform to legal health and safety regulations.

How did the autoclave come about?

The autoclave was invented in 1879 by Charles Chamberland. The benefits of sterile surgery were starting to catch on and doctors needed a more reliable way to sterilize their instruments besides heating them in the fire. The benefits of the autoclave were quickly evident and it became an indispensable part of every doctor’s office and hospital.

How does an autoclave work?

Autoclaves work by allowing steam to enter and maintaining extremely high pressure (and heat) for at least 15 minutes. All autoclaves operate on a time/temperature relationship. These two variables are extremely important. Higher temperatures ensure more rapid killing. Typical temperature/time sterilisation parameters are 115°C for 30 minutes, 121°C for 15 minutes and 134°C for three minutes. Cycle times also vary according to the load of the autoclave.

Are there any alternatives to autoclaving your piercing tools and jewellery?

Using a flame to sterilize a needle or other piercing tool is unacceptable. The flame will cause ccontamination and will also dull needles (almost instantly), and then start to damage their structural integrity (within seconds).

Boiling water as a sterilization procedure is not recommended and is utterly unacceptable in a professional context. Boiling water will not be effective, although killing some bacteria with a boiling point of 100 degrees Celsius within half an hour, not all bacteria will be destroyed.

Rubbing alcohol will disinfect, however, most of the microbes we worry about (things like Hepatitis) will not be destroyed.

Chemicals used for sterilization include the gases ethylene oxide and formaldehyde, and liquids such as glutaraldehyde. Of all these sterilants, autoclaving is the fastest and most reliable. Ultraviolet and ionising radiations are also effective, but ultraviolet will not produce the effective results and easy validation that steam sterilisation can provide.

What materials can be sterilized in an autoclave?

Due to their high melting points, metals can be used in an autoclave, along with Glass and some acrylics. Most acrylics cannot be autoclaved, with the exception of Bioplast, PTFE, PMMA and Bioflex, which are all suitable for autoclaving and are used in the medical industry for surgery.

As a general rule, all natural materials (such as bone, horn, wood and gemstones should not be used in an autoclave. This should not be a requirement, however, considering that these materials are only recommended for wear in fully healed piercings only. Once a piercing is fully healed, you will not need to sterilize (or autoclave) your jewellery; although washing with water and antibacterial soap will be sufficient to keep your jewellery hygienic.

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