How to Sterilize Your Tattoo Station

A sterile tattoo station is free not only of visible blood and ink, but also the germs and viruses that you can’t see. Simply wiping your tattoo station with an antibacterial wipe will not kill life-threatening viruses.

One of the biggest mistakes new tattoo artists make is picking up a tattoo machine before they understand how to kill dangerous viruses. However, with the right information, you can keep yourself and your clients safe from infections, bloodborne pathogens, and other healing issues.

If you’re not sure how to make sure your tattoo station is sterile, keep reading.

In this article, we’ll be breaking down how to:

  • Set up your station for a safe tattoo
  • Sanitize your station after tattooing
  • Make sure your autoclave is working properly

Note:

Sanitizing and sterilizing are not the same thing. This is why many household cleaners are not good enough for cleaning a tattoo station. Your tattoo station must be completely sterile.

How to Set Up and Sterilize Your Tattoo Station

BEFORE the Tattoo:

Please note that before you tattoo (even on fake skin), you should go through a complete bloodborne pathogens training. In many states this can be done online and it is required to get your tattoo license.

1

Wrap Your Equipment

Everything you use during a tattoo needs to be wrapped up. This includes your:

  • Tattoo machine
  • Clip cord cover
  • Work station
  • Bench or massage table
  • Soap bottles

Some of these items have specific products that can help with this process (like machine bags or clip cord covers). However, for larger items like a massage table, you can use Saran wrap from the grocery store.  

2

Wear Gloves

You should always wear gloves when prepping and cleaning your station. You can take additional precautions as well, like wearing an apron that can be sterilized.

3

Empty the Trash Can

For every tattoo, you want to make sure your station is completely clear of any hazardous material. This includes the trash. For example, the paper towels from your last tattoo should not be in the trash when a new client sits down to get tattooed. 

Needle cartridges and razors should not be thrown into the trash. You’ll dispose of them in a biohazard container.

AFTER the Tattoo:

Once the tattoo is done, you must sterilize your entire setup before tattooing another client.

1

Dispose of Used Tubes

When you set up your tattoo machine, you’ll either use reusable steel tubes or disposable plastic tubes.

As you might have guessed, when you’re done with a disposable tube, you simply throw it away. 

If you use steel tubes, you have to use an autoclave to sterilize them. If you do not have an autoclave, you must buy disposable tubes.

Note:

If you don’t have an autoclave, you can’t use a pen style machine unless it comes with disposables. No matter how well you wrap it, your machine will still be exposed to bloodborne pathogens.

Pro Tip:

Using an autoclave comes with extra work. In many states, you have to send in weekly spore tests to a lab to make sure your autoclave is sterilizing correctly (it can reach the right temperature and still not sterilize your equipment). Additionally, you have to scrub your tubes out before placing them in the autoclave. 

2

Wipe Down with Madacide

Remove all your plastic barriers and spray MadaCide or Cavicide (cleaners that kill bloodborne pathogens) on your work areas, benches, station, chair, etc. 

Don’t wipe the cleaner off right away. For it to actually kill bloodborne pathogens, it will need to sit on the surface. Check the back of the bottle to see how long you’re supposed to leave the cleaner on your surfaces before wiping it away. (MadaCide usually needs around six minutes to be effective). 

After that time is up, wipe everything down and let it air dry.

Note:

You do not want to spray MadaCide or Cavicide on your tattoo machines. This is why it’s so important to properly wrap your tattoo machine.

Pro Tip:

We recommend repeating this step before a tattoo as well. For example, if you clean  your tattoo station but then don’t return for a few days, you should sterilize the space again before tattooing someone. 

3

Clean the Floors

The floor can have hair from shaving the area you’ve tattooed, bloodborne pathogens, or other viruses, which is why it’s important to keep the floor clean. You can use bleach to clean up. (Do not use bleach on any other equipment). You can then go over the floor with a mop.

Note:

If you spill ink or anything else on the ground, make sure to take care of it immediately.

Autoclave Information

If you’re practicing in a private space, you’ll most likely be using disposables. However, if you are in a shop and need to use an autoclave, it’s important to understand how they work. 

Before you put tubes or grips into an autoclave, you need to make sure they are clean from debris or particles. The autoclave will sterilize, but it won’t be able to scrub out old ink and blood. Even a small speck can affect the way an autoclave sterilizes, so you need to make sure they are 100% clean, and that you’re using the right cleaners. 

When your equipment is ready for the autoclave, you’ll put whatever is going to be sterilized into its own sterile pouch. Put a date on the bag, and then run it through the autoclave. 

Most autoclaves will run at 275 degrees with 15 to 23 pounds of pressure. Once it reaches the desired temperature, it's going to have to wait 20 minutes with your supplies inside in order to reach that sterilization. 

If you put your equipment in an autoclave, but don’t let it run for a full cycle, the package will say it’s been sterilized. However, this just means that it got up to the right temperature - not that it was at the right temperature for the right amount of time

Autoclave Safety

Autoclaves must be tested every week to make sure they’re working correctly. This is a “spore test” that you’ll send into a lab. They’ll confirm whether the autoclave is working and making your materials safe to use. 

Additionally, autoclaves themselves can be dangerous. You’ll hear occasional stories of them blowing up or catching on fire. This is why you never want to turn the autoclave on and just leave the shop for the night. We recommend staying until the autoclave process is finished and the machine is off.

Become a Tattoo Artist With the Artist Accelerator Program

Having a career in tattooing is not only fulfilling, but it’s also the most stable way to make a living as an artist. However, for decades, the process to become a tattoo artist has been notoriously difficult. 

The apprenticeship process requires aspiring tattoo artists to work 50-60 hours a week without pay for 2-4 years. That, combined with the toxic culture of abusing apprentices, makes getting into the industry almost impossible for newcomers. 

That’s why we created the Artist Accelerator Program. Our online course provides a simple, structured way of learning to tattoo that has been proven to work by over 2500 successful students, with many of them having gone on to open their own shops all around the world. 

Inside the program, we’ll take you through every step of the tattooing process in 9 clear, easy-to-follow modules and support you along the way within the Tattooing 101 Mastermind online community.

In the Mastermind group, you’ll collaborate with other students, get answers to your questions, and receive personalized video feedback on your artwork and tattoos from professional tattoo artists. With this friendly community of both new and experienced tattoo artists, you’ll never be stuck again. 

When you join the Artist Accelerator Program, you’ll have instant access to the full course and the Mastermind community, as well as our 30-Day Flash Challenge and recorded interviews with tattoo artists from all over the world. 

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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