But that’s good enough, right?

We’re going to get a little technical in this post. There may be some jargon involved, but I’ll try to keep everything as simple and universally understandable as possible.

So, what is the technical, defining difference between something that is “sterile” and something that is “sanitary”? How do you achieve each one? What doesn’t work to sterilize, what can you do to clean something that you can’t fully sterilize?

First off, actual definitions from the dictionary:
STERILE (in the medical definition sense): free from living germs or microorganisms; aseptic
SANITARY: clean, germ-free, unpolluted

They sound very similar, don’t they? Almost like the same thing. Well, there are a few specific and very important differences.

Sterile means every single living organism is killed on the surface of the item. Absolutely nothing is left behind. The only time bacteria can get on a sterilized item is once the sterile package is open. Doctors and dentists do this for their reusable metal tools like clamps.

Sanitary means they’ve just been removed, like wiped away. Sanitary means the item is NOT free of all living organisms, just most of them. Some can be left behind, it only reduces the number of organisms down to an acceptable level, it doesn’t fully remove 100% of them. You sanitize the surfaces in your kitchen and bathroom.

Something that has been sterilized can also be considered sanitary, but something that is sanitary cannot be considered sterile. See the subtle differences?

Now, how can you achieve each state?

There is no way to fully sterilize an item in the home. There just isn’t. It doesn’t matter what you do, what chemicals you try, what methods you use, how long you scrub the item or the area, there is NO WAY to sterilize anything in your home. There are soft surfaces everywhere that harbor bacteria, other people are moving around and you have no idea where they’ve been or what they’ve been touching, billions of infectious micro-organisms in the air, bathroom germs all over the house, kitchen and food germs all over everything, potentially pets running around, dust on everything, dirt on everything, all sorts of nastiness floating around. All of these around prevent you from creating a sterile environment. There are no readily made products available to the common consumer that can produce a sterile environment, not even bleach or alcohol can do it. The best you could do is sanitize, and we’ve already been over why that’s not good enough.

Since we’re speaking in terms of body piercing and tattooing, we’ll use a needle as the item needing to be sterilized. How do you sterilize a needle, then? The only truly acceptable way is with an autoclave. Doctors and dentists use this machine to sterilize their reusable tools like picks, clamps, mirrors, etc. Have you ever noticed that when you go to the dentist, they have all those packages with the tools in them sitting on the small table beside the chair? Those are autoclave bags, special bags used in the autoclave machine to hold each object and keep it fully sterile until the package is opened. This is the same machine and packaging professional piercers use to sterilize their needles and clamps and other reusable tools.

One of these machines, just the machine itself, can cost a thousand dollars or more, so it’s not something one is likely to have lying about and it’s not easily available for the casual consumer. You can’t just mosey on down to the Wal-Mart and pick one up, next to the rice cookers and coffee pots. This is a professional piece of equipment, and the bags need to be repurchased over and over, they are not reusable. These machines work by using super high steam heat and pressure, sometimes with chemicals as well, to kill organisms. There is no way to replicate the high heats these things create, or the amount of pressure they use, in a home environment. There just isn’t.

So, bottom line, there is no way to actually sterilize a needle at home. You need a professional machine, the autoclave, to do it.

“But I heard that flame will sterilize a needle! Same with boiling water, putting it in the dishwasher, soaking in rubbing alcohol or bleach or peroxide!” you may be saying. I hate to say it, but these, at best, only sanitize. Flame is one of the worst ways, actually. Flame needs a fuel to burn, and this fuel can leave a residue on the needle.

There are many species of bacteria that actually thrive in boiling water conditions, so that doesn’t do much either. Alcohol, bleach and peroxide only, again, sanitize at best. Bleach and boiling water do not kill the tuberculosis spore, for example. Many people will buy new jewelry offline and even though they come in clean, sealed bags, many people still wish to clean them before wear. In this case, you may want to use alcohol to clean them, so long as it’s safe for the material of the jewelry. I personally think that it’s unnecessary to do that since soap and water tend to work just fine, but if you want to go the alcohol method, go for it.

Now, what can you do to sanitize jewelry and tools? Like I said, bleach and alcohol and peroxide tend to do a good job, but so does anti-bacterial soap and warm water. It’s just mostly unnecessary to use anything other than anti-bacterial soap and water to sanitize a piece of jewelry. Many chemicals can even damage the jewelry, so it’s not worth it.

So no matter what you think, or what anyone ever tells you, there is no way to STERILIZE a tool or jewelry in your home or on your own. There just isn’t. The best you can do is sanitize, and that’s not good enough.

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