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How Tattoos Work

Creating a Tattoo: Sterilization
An autoclave sterilizes tattoo equipment before each use.
An autoclave sterilizes tattoo equipment before each use.

A tattoo machine creates a puncture wound every time it injects a drop of ink into the skin. Since any puncture wound has the potential for infection and disease transmission, much of the application process focuses on safety. Tattoo artists use sterilization, disposable materials and hand sanitation to protect themselves and their clients.

To eliminate the possibility of contamination, most tattoo materials, including inks, ink cups, gloves and needles, are single use. Many single-use items arrive in sterile packaging, which the artist opens in front of the customer just before beginning work.

Reusable materials, such as the needle bar and tube, are sterilized before every use. The only acceptable sterilization method is an autoclave -- a heat/steam/pressure unit often used in hospitals. Most units run a 55-minute cycle from a cold start, and they kill every organism on the equipment. To do this, an autoclave uses time, temperature and pressure in one of two combinations:

  • A temperature of 250° F (121° C) under 10 pounds of pressure for 30 minutes
  • A temperature of 270° F (132° C) under 15 pounds of pressure for 15 minutes