Check out the shop thoroughly. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by a clean look. If the needles are not disposed of after each person, then it MUST be “autoclaved.” Autoclaving is a process that pressurizes the instruments and kills any virus or bacteria that might transmit viruses or bacteria. My dentist has two auto-clavers–one gas and one steam–both pressurizing down to 250fsw. He also has spore samples that he autoclaves and sends to a pathology lab to make sure the machines are working.
Ask the artist how they clean their needles. If they don’t say they auto-clave, you are taking your risks. If they say they do, ask to see their machine. Note that in some states, autoclaving is required by law. Other common-sense types of things include throwing out the ink after each customer. Make sure the artists have small wells for each ink colour that they dispense from a larger container, and that these are thrown out after work on you is done. Compare the conditions of the shop to that of your dentist–does the artist wear gloves? Are the areas sprayed clean?
According to the Environmental Health Center, each year, a few cases of Hep-B are reported in people who’ve gotten tattoos within the last two months, but they have not been able to trace the disease back to its source, nor attribute it directly to the tattoo. If you think about it, the tattooist is much more at risk, as s/he has to touch the customer’s blood. While an autoclave will kill the HIV virus, it is not because of the efficacy of the ‘clave, but because of the weakness of that particular virus. Far more insidious is Hepatitis, which is more tenacious, and which a ‘clave does not always kill. Hepatitis is easier to transmit than HIV but all the bugs will be killed IF the autoclave is run properly (i.e., set hot enough & long enough). Some instruments can not, however, be autoclaved since they can not take the heat.
LADS ROOM ADVICE !
EVERYONE should be using disposable needles.
The chemical bath is only as effective as how fresh is it, how concentrated, what chemicals, how “dirty” or contaminated the instruments, how long in the bath, which particular bug is under attack, etc. It is not the device, autoclave or chemical bath, that is as important as the operator. There are many different bugs out there. HIV may be one of the most deadly and Hep among the more easily transmitted but many others have to be considered (including Chlamydia, the infection rate of which is 20%!) If the artist or piercer is conscientious, reliable and knowledgeable, either device could serve. Again my general rule still stands: “EVERYONE should be using disposable needles.”
The skin should be cleaned with antibacterial soap and water and scrubbing before the procedure to lessen the normal population of germs on the hide. Alcohol doesn’t do much but tends to degrease and cool, so no harm but no substitute.
USE OF DISPOSABLE GLOVES: A conscientious, professional tattooist or piercer will often go through A DOZEN DISPOSABLE GLOVES on one client. Gloves SHOULD be changed every time they touch unsanitized items with their gloves. If you see that the artist does not change gloves after answering the phone, they are not being sanitary. Marginally acceptable is if they pick up the phone (or other objects, such as pencil) with a tissue. Optimally, they should use a new pair of gloves after each potential contamination.