Medical professional handling equipment

Step-by-Step Guide to Sterilizing Equipment

Learn the procedures, steps, risks, and requirements for sterilizing equipment.

Medical professional handling equipment

Equipment sterilization is perhaps the most critical procedure in healthcare. The need for sterilization may sound obvious, but it’s a step that cannot be skipped. In dental care, a medical professional disinfects the equipment with either steam, dry heat, or unsaturated chemical vapor. This procedure removes bacteria and other living microorganisms from tools. Mastering this skill is of the utmost importance for the safety of patients and dental professionals.

Sterilizing dental instruments keeps people safe from bacteria and germs. In other words, this process prevents dental professionals from accidentally spreading viral or bacterial infections as they treat their patients. Therefore, it’s essential to follow the proper method of equipment sterilization to ensure patient health.

This article focuses on the art and science of sterilizing equipment, one of the most important dental procedures for medical staff.

(See our list of the most common Dental Assisting duties and responsibilities)

Equipment Sterilization Definition

What Does It Mean To Sterilize Equipment?

The act of equipment sterilization is when a dental professional disinfects the equipment using steam sterilization, dry heat sterilization, or unsaturated chemical vapor sterilization. Critical and heat-stable instruments are sterilized after each use by one of these methods:

  • Steam sterilization (autoclaves): This technique uses a specified temperature, pressure, and time to kill microorganisms.
  • Dry heat sterilizers: This method forces hot air to rise within an oven-like chamber through natural convection.
  • Unsaturated chemical vapor sterilizers: The combination of alcohol, formaldehyde, acetone, ketone, and water produces a vapor that sanitizes instruments.

What is the Purpose of Equipment Sterilization?

Equipment sterilization is a standard procedure that’s performed for the following reasons:

  1. To remove bacteria, disease, fungi, and viruses
  2. To prevent the spread of bacterial or viral infections
  3. To protect patients and healthcare professionals

How Long Does it Take To Sterilize Equipment?

Although it depends on the type of sterilization, this procedure usually takes about 20-40 minutes to complete. However, the dry heat sterilizer method can require 150 minutes to achieve sterilization. On the other hand, steam sterilization and unsaturated chemical vapor sterilizers take 25–40 minutes.

Who Can Sterilize Equipment?

Dental Assistants are commonly in charge of infection control. They bag instruments for sterilization, a vital step that no DA should ever skip. They must wait for the tools to complete every cycle and only remove them once they are dry.

(Go here to learn how to become a Dental Assistant)

Close up of dental office appliances

Training Requirements for Sterilizing Equipment

The requirements for equipment sterilization vary and depend on your location and profession. For instance, Dental Assistants usually need to graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam. However, some may learn through on-the-job training.

Dental Assistant programs typically take about one year or less to complete. They include both clinical and classroom instruction. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) accredits over 250 Dental Assisting programs in the United States. These programs provide knowledge and practical experience.

Equipment Sterilization Procedure

Like any other skill, sterilizing equipment requires time and practice to get right. So, the first step is to understand proper sterilization procedures.

Equipment Sterilization Prep

It’s beneficial to have your supplies ready, study up on state law, and check your employer’s policy and procedures. Steam or autoclave sterilization is perhaps the most common method of sterilization.

Sterilizing Equipment Steps

Here are the general guidelines you should follow:

  1. Wear personal protective equipment (PPE). This may include eyewear, gloves, and facemasks. Replace your PPE between patients. The goal is to keep as sterile an environment as possible.
  2. Clean your instruments. Before the sterilization process begins, you must thoroughly clean the tools. First, remove visible debris by scrubbing with detergent and water or utilizing an automated process that includes chemical agents. Finally, rinse to eliminate any detergent or chemical residue.
  3. Sterilize your equipment. As we’ve previously covered, there are three types of sterilizers that may be used in dental practices.
    • Steam sterilization (autoclaves). Put each instrument into direct steam contact. Autoclaves will hit 250-273 degrees Fahrenheit and take anywhere from four to 30 minutes, depending on whether you wrapped the instruments or not. Afterward, you’ll start the drying cycle, which may take around 25 to 40 minutes.
    • Dry heat sterilizers. Place your instruments into a machine that uses either static or forced air. If you use forced air, then heated air will circulate in the chamber at high speed. You’ll achieve sterilization at 300-375 degrees Fahrenheit in up to 150 minutes.
    • Unsaturated chemical vapor sterilizers. Use a combination of alcohol, formaldehyde, acetone, ketone, and water to sterilize your instruments. When this vapor is applied at high pressure and 270 degrees of heat, you’ll reach sterilization after 20 to 40 minutes.

Necessary Equipment for Sterilization

Typically, the supplies for dental equipment sterilization include the following items:

  • Dental Autoclaves and Sterilizers
  • Dental Instrument Washers
  • Dental Instrument Dryers
  • Sterilization Cabinetry
  • Sterilization Wastewater Cooling

General equipment sterilization may require items like the below:

  • Steam sterilizers
  • Sterilization system
  • Control system
  • Composite trays
  • Hydrogen peroxide and gas-plasma sterilization
  • Aseptic environments
  • Steam generators
  • E-beam system

Potential Risks or Complications of Equipment Sterilization

The most considerable risk of inadequate equipment sterilization is the introduction of pathogenic microbes. In every practice, the goal of sterilization should be to prevent the transmission of germs. For example, viral or bacterial infections could spread from patient to patient if the equipment hasn’t been properly sterilized. They could also spread to you, the dental professional. It’s no exaggeration to say that proper sterilization is vital.

The word tips in wooden letter blocks

Pro Tips for Mastering the Art of Equipment Sterilization

Equipment-sterilization tips include practicing as much as possible, valuing quality over quantity, and learning proper procedures. Here are other pro tips that may assist you in the future:

  • Ensure the sterilization area is easily visible –It may sound strange, but the sanitization area was kept out of sight in the past. This meant that patients didn’t see dirty tools or out-of-date equipment. Now, the sterilization process must be on display. Not only will it physically demonstrate the sanitary state of your practice, but it will ensure that no metaphorical balls are dropped.
  • Train, train, and train some more  The saying “practice makes perfect” can be annoying, but it’s true! Practice these skills as much as you’re allowed; when you can’t, observe other, more experienced colleagues as they complete the task. Ask questions.
  • Remember to protect yourself AND the patient It can’t be said enough: Wear personal protective equipment (PPE). In addition, remember to wear utility gloves while cleaning any dental instruments. These gloves should be puncture and chemical-resistant.
  • Clean the instruments first; steam later – Any outer layers of debris must be removed before sterilizing instruments. The CDC recommends that you use one of the following methods:
    • Ultrasonic cleaning. Through this process, sound waves pass through a solution to loosen debris.
    • Automated instrument washers. Loosely think of these washers as electric hand mixers. Manual ones are okay, but electric mixers are more efficient and save time.
    • Manual scrubbing. This method is just as it sounds: manually scrub the instruments. However, this method carries the highest risk, so it is not usually recommended.
  • Avoid moisture and thoroughly dry instruments – Bacteria tend to like moist environments. Therefore, it’s critical that you thoroughly dry your instruments before sterilizing them in an autoclave cycle.
  • Package your instruments with wraps or pouches – Cover them with autoclave wraps or pouches BEFORE putting them in the sterilizer. The packaging must also be sealed to prevent air exposure when you remove the instruments from the sterilizer.
  • Do not overload each autoclave cycle – We know it’s tempting to clean as many instruments at once as possible. However, if you overload each autoclave cycle, the instruments may not achieve sterilization. This is why we say value quality over quantity.

Why Should Dental Assistants Learn How To Sterilize Equipment?

Without regular equipment sterilization, we could all suffer from various issues. Healthcare professionals must do everything possible to prevent germs and bacteria from spreading. Although equipment sterilization may sound simple, it’s a crucial and highly effective procedure vital to overall health.

Thankfully, Dental Assistants can significantly increase the efficiency of the dental care team. For example, when they assist dentists and dental hygienists by sterilizing equipment between patients, they help them deliver the highest quality oral healthcare. They also help them save time so they can see more patients daily.

While equipment sterilization isn’t always a job requirement, it is a task that Dental Assistants commonly perform. It’s also a valuable skill that could lead to more opportunities. Therefore, it would be advantageous for DAs or aspiring Dental Assistants to pursue training in this area. Once experienced, a DA would likely become more helpful to their employer and earn better career prospects.

Start Your Career in Dental Assisting

Smiling dental professional holding tools

Equipment sterilization is a crucial skill aspiring Dental Assistants should consider learning for their careers. It’s also an essential practice for the prevention of various medical issues.

Regular dental appointments in a safe and sterile environment can prevent potential issues and manage your oral health. Remember: Your oral health is linked to your overall health.

If you’re inspired and want to pursue a career in medicine, Unitek College offers various healthcare programs, such as our Dental Assisting program.

Contact us today to learn more about our programs and tuition assistance options. Take the first step toward a rewarding future in healthcare!