Sterilization means by definition, that you make any object, including surfaces, free of germs or bacteria. Technically this is impossible. There are so many germs out there that as soon as something touches the air it is contaminated. Something only remains sterile if you never remove it from a sterilized packaging; even then it's only good for about three months. If you autoclave sterilize something and leave it alone, after a period of time it becomes un-sterile again. What this means for you as an aspiring tattoo artist is that you're going to have germs; you just have to make sure the really bad ones are gone. The major germs and viruses that we have to guard against are Hepatitis, HIV, and MRSA. If you can kill these guys then the others are already dead. Let's start with where to find these bad guys. Your hands are the number one place to defend the most. No one realizes just how easy it is to infect yourself. How many times a day do you touch your face and not think about it? Do you always remember to wash your hands before you eat? Do you think about your hands when getting a piece of gum? If you don't wash your hands enough then you open a piece of chewing gum, and mindlessly throw it in your mouth, you're done. That's all it takes. Wash your hands properly. Wash with anti-bacterial soap. Always wash all the way to your elbow, and rinse from the elbow to the tips of your fingers. What good is washing your hands if you hold your hands up and all that bacteria rolls right back down your arms.
Hep is the quickest guy to get. Almost anything you touch in the studio can possibly have Hep on it. You do a tattoo and your client needs to use the restroom. He gets up and walks through the lobby to the restroom and closes the door. What you don't see is he had his hands on his tattoos. People always touch their tattoo, no matter how many times you tell them not to. He touched the door frame for the tattoo room, the handle and door to the restroom; the sink handle, the toilet when he flushes, and maybe the counter on his way back out. All of those places now have Hep. Now, while you're tattooing you're using a spray bottle of water right? You spray the tattoo and it gets on your pants and the floor. Now it's on the sole of your shoe. You walk through the shop, touch the same door frame and the same knob to the restroom, then you touch yourself to do your business. You wash your hands so they are clean but when you turn off the water you put it right back on from when he touched the sink first. Now you have Hepatitis on the floor, all over the shop, the tattoo chair, the door frame, the restroom handle, the toilet, the door knob, the sink, your shoes, your hands, your privates, and your face because everyone touches their face. Damn that spread quick. Now your significant other has Hep because they kiss you and then they kissed your kid goodnight, now they have it too.
What the hell do I do now? Well it's your job to make sure that everything is safe. Rubbing alcohol will not kill Hepatitis or HIV. The only thing alcohol will kill is bacteria, not viruses. Rubbing alcohol is not the answer. There are a few chemical solutions you can buy from a tattoo supply company. They all have different names but they are called germicidal solutions. Usually these chemicals are pretty expensive as well. About all of them come in one gallon jugs and are concentrated. To get them to work right you have to measure just right and then when you spray them on, they have to sit for up to twenty minutes to be affective. This sounds like a lot of crap to me. The best and the cheapest thing you can use is good, old fashioned bleach and water. Bleach and water are good for surfaces. Never use them on skin and never try to sterilize needles, only surfaces. You can use bleach and water to clean a tattoo machine, but you have to clean the bleach back off because it causes oxidation, which makes metal rust.
The bleach you need to use is chlorine bleach, not the scented bleach because often it's too pungent of a smell. What is bleach? Chlorine is basically table salt. Bleach is salt water that has been changed by a chemical reaction started with electricity. Bleach is technically a solution of sodium (salt) hydroxide mixed with water in a 5.25% mix. Chlorine is also used to treat swimming pools and the water you drink everyday. It's used because it's a disinfectant. This means it kills the bad guys. When chlorine reacts to water it actually produces a mild hydrochloric acid. This is why straight bleach on your cloths before you wash them will eat a hole. When you clean any body fluids with bleach you want to dilute it with water. A dilution of 1:100 will do the trick but the more bleach the better. I tend to use a twenty percent dilution ( 20% bleach and 80% water). 1:100 means that for every quart of water you want about two tablespoons of bleach. It's usually a safe bet to clean your area then spray the surfaces with a mist for full coverage, letting the bleach and water soak for a few minutes. Then dry the area. If you don't dry the area you will get a nice white coating on everything. Bleach does have a very strong smell so you want to be careful and make sure the area is well ventilated. Bleach and water of the same dilution will be fine for mop water as well. Using the bleach method you can guard against Hepatitis, MRSA, and HIV effectively. Also, if you use the large plastic spray bottles from say Wal-mart, you will need to replace them about every two months or so. The bleach causes the spring in the handle to rust can eventually break.
The floor is a large concern in a tattoo shop. If you don't get the floor clean then you will track disease everywhere you go. Another thing to think about is that every client sees your floor and that's the first thing they judge the cleanliness of your shop by. The first thing you want to do is sterilize your floor. A lot of products are on the market for cleaning floors, but the best thing I have found for killing germs and disease is just bleach and water. Bleach and water does a great job, however it will not make your floor look all nice and pretty. In the tattoo industry we use a lot of pigments that are very strong and very similar to ink so it will stain the floor very easy. We also use a purple carbon copy paper to transfer the design to the human skin; this carbon gets on everything and is a devil to get back off. I have tried almost every name brand product out there, even down to raw acetone. Nothing seems to get the pigment and the purple carbon up except for one product, tile cleaner. You want to use the tile cleaner that foams up when you spray it. My best guess is that it gets down in the cracks and the pigment and carbon float out on top of the chemical. It's funny how it works. A small drop of pigment will make a colorful puddle more than a foot wide. After you spray just let it soak a minute or so and mop away the nasty. Again this is a pungent chemical and you should always open the windows or make sure you can get plenty of fresh air while you work. Make sure to mop well under all counters and around all sinks. Get every spot you can. Any time you use a new chemical always do a test spot. Some chemicals like acetone might eat a hole in your tattoo chair, so test first.
Your tattoo station should be a small desk so you can move it easily for cleaning. I personally use an upright tool chest, the kind with a cabinet under it, for my pigments and supplies. These tool chests are on wheels and move very easily for cleaning. Every tattoo station should have its own room and its own sink. The sink is one of the dirtiest places in a tattoo shop. You need to keep it clean because this is also where will wash your hands the most. An easy way to get around the knob thing is, go down to your local hardware store and get a hands free sink valve. There are a few different types. The more expensive ones are foot or knee switches that turn the water on for you.
I personally use the kind that's a metal bar that attaches to you faucet by screwing on where the screen goes. These are great because you never have to touch the knobs. You set the water as you wish and when you are ready to wash your hands you simply move the bar to one side or the other as you wash your hands. When you take your hands out of the sink the bar returns to its place blocking off the water flow. These kits cost about ten to fifteen dollars. Remember to keep your sink clean with the bleach water at all times. After every tattoo cleaning the sink should be part of your process.
Let's take a look at your tattoo station. The best thing to use is a small desk with a smooth surface. You want the surface light in color so you can see any type of pigment or blood. Wood is a bad idea because the blood and pigment will soak into it and you will not be able to keep it clean. You want plenty of lighting. An upright floor lamp at the corner you will be working from and a desk top lamp should do the trick. The best way to be sterile is by removing as many things from the table as you can. The spray bottles you will be using should be plastic and you should have one for bleach and water, alcohol, witch hazel, saline, water, glycerin, and green soap mixed with water. Each will serve a later purpose. Above your work station you should by a towel bar, like for the bathroom. It should also be light in color; I think the square chrome is the best. This is for you to hang your spray bottles by their triggers. Your sharps container should be on the floor under your station away from where anyone might get accidentally stuck. The less you have on your work station the more sterile your environment will be. You should have a separate stand or table for your pigment bottles at least five foot away from your work station to avoid cross contamination. Wall shelving would also work for this. All of these surfaces should be cleaned on a regular basis. You should remove all of the pigment bottles and clean under them as well. Some artists like to use what is called an ultrasonic cleaner. This is a device that's uses vibration and a soapy solution to clean tubes and clamps. The vibration shakes loose any biological matter like blood from the tubes and clamps. In the past I have seen a few artists use these to wash the ink out of the tube during a tattoo. This is a very bad practice; you cannot properly sanitize this machine. Only use an ultrasonic cleaner prior to autoclaving, and always keep it away from your station. Make sure to read all instructions of any piece for equipment you plan to use.
Your tattoo chair should also be light in color. The best chairs are the ones made specifically for the use of tattooing. There are a few companies out there but they can get pricy and it's hard to find one that's not black. Due to this reason I personally use a barber chair for the upright tattoos such as arms, and a full size massage table for the lay downs like legs and backs. All chairs should be cleaned on opening, after every tattoo, and again right before closing. Make sure to get in all the little places, in between the cushions, and all the metal hardware like foot pedals and handles. Any stools, or arm rests that may be used should be treated with the same care. This leads us to instrument care. There are a lot of tools that are involved with tattooing. Obviously, you have a machine, which will have is own cleaning section in this book. You will also have to clean your bottles, foot switch, power supply, and clip cord after every tattoo. Forgetting a single one of these could lead to a lot of problems for everyone. Anything that is used in a tattoo needs to be cleaned or thrown away. Any ink pens that you may use on a person for drawing must be used once and thrown away. Packs of pens are like two dollars, don't be cheap. Never use reusable towels. Always use standard paper towels while tattooing. Some of them have printed designs on them, while some artist will tell you the ones with designs will bleed color into your tattoo. I have never had a problem with this and I've used them for years. There's just something funny about tattooing a skull on some huge biker guy, using paper towels with bunnies and duckies on them. All stencils need to be used once and thrown away, and all razors need to be used once and thrown away.
Something I've always found funny is that all sharps (sharpened medical equipment such as needles or scalpels) should be thrown in the red sharps disposal container, but the health department makes you throw disposable razors in the trash. Something else is tubes. A tattooing tube is made of metal. It fits on the machine and has a grip attached to it that's mostly metal but sometimes plastic. The idea is that it holds the needle while we tattoo. Everyone is so concerned with a tattoo shop using new needles but no one ever thinks about the tubes. They come into as much contact with blood as a needle. Most shops use these metal tubes and re-clean them for further use. They are expensive (about six bucks a pop) so they reuse them anywhere from one-thousand to fifteen-hundred times before replacing them. That's not a comforting thought. Most shops also reuse their needle bars. A tattoo needle is really two parts, the needle bar that fits onto the machine and a needle head that penetrates the skin. Most shops use the needles, cut off the heads and solder new heads on the old bars. Again, the needle bar comes in just as much contact with blood as the needle head and tube does.
An autoclave is a machine that uses heat and pressure to kill germs. Everything that's put into an autoclave should be in a bag or pouch that's made especially for the use of autoclaving. This bag or pouch has an indicator strip on it that changes color when sterilization has been reached. Always read the color change area for what color it was, and what color it should be. There are a few different types. A dry heat oven that does not use pressure, a chem-clave named for its use of a pre-made sterilizing chemical, and an autoclave uses heat and pressure while on a timer. Most hospitals have a six week course to learn how to properly use one of these while tattoo shops are only required to read the instructions. You have to pre-clean the tube making sure that all biological matter is gone, and know how to properly run the autoclave before you have sterilization. This means that you have to trust someone that works in a tattoo shop with your life. I just don't see this happening. There are new advancements to the industry everyday. For the last few years they have made a disposable tube that's plastic. It comes pre-sterilized and pre-packaged. You open it, you use it, and you throw it away. Not only is it safer, but you don't have to waste hours a week cleaning tubes. Most artists bitch and say they can't use them, or it doesn't feel the same. I have used hundreds of them honest, they work just fine. Although metal tubes do seem to be a little better for grey wash. They are not as heavy so your hand will not ware out as quickly and are about a dollar each. The same company makes pre-sterilized and pre packaged needles cheaper than the cost of making your own. So if you don't use those then you just like wasting your own time. Very few shops make there own needles any more. Well that's pretty much the basics to sterilization. Always do research and learn as much as you can about your environment as well as the dangers it may have virally. What little bit I went over is nothing compared to what you need to know.
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