What Is Disinfection And Sterilization In Dentistry
Medically reviewed by Dr Jerry Jesin

Disinfection And Sterilization in Dentistry

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Like any other medical procedure, dentistry requires strict adherence to certain cleanliness guidelines in order to prevent infections. The process of keeping instruments clean and disposing of potential infection sources is known as dental sterilization. All dentists, hygienists, and assistants receive training in dental sterilization and infection prevention as part of their professional education. An office that maintains good infection control procedures limits the risk of illness and infection in its patients.

Sterilizing Dental Tools

So what is dental sterilization and why is sterilization important in dentistry? To answer the first part of that question, dental sterilization kills all forms of microbial life on an instrument. While many instruments can be thrown out immediately after use, some tools require reuse and thus need regular sterilization. Because these tools come into contact with the human mouth, which is itself a breeding ground for all kinds of bacteria, dental sterilization is necessary to ensure that germs from one person’s mouth don’t transfer to another’s. By killing all microbial life on an instrument, the dentist or hygienist ensures that the risk of infection from patient to patient is as close to zero as possible.

What Tools Get Reused?

Do dentists reuse tools? The answer is yes, but only with some tools. Dentists follow the guidelines presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which breaks tools into three major categories. Critical instruments such as scalpels and scalers make contact with soft tissue and bone. Semi-critical instruments such as mouth mirrors and impression trays make contact with oral tissue but don’t penetrate that tissue. Finally, non-critical instruments make contact with intact skin rather than tissue or bone. Both critical and semi-critical instruments must be fully sterilized between uses. Noncritical tools do not need sterilization but still get disinfected to minimize infection risk.

The Sterilization Process

How often do dentists sterilize their equipment? A dental office that follows standard safety procedures makes sure that whatever tools they use in your mouth are completely sterilized and have not been used on another patient prior to sterilization. The sterilization process includes a thorough cleaning to eliminate most bacteria first. The dental sterilization process then utilizes heat to kill the remaining microorganisms. This could include steam sterilization, the use of ethylene oxide gas, or dry heat sterilization. Regardless of the specific method, the process raises the temperature of the instrument to a hot enough level that all microbial organisms die. Instruments that might get damaged by this process are sterilized by soaking them in a bacteria-killing chemical, then rinsing them with sterile water.

Why is Dental Sterilization Important?

All of these sterilization procedures take time and money. This may lead some to question why infection control is important in dentistry. The answer to that lies in the manner in which most diseases and illnesses get passed on. A normal infection becomes much more likely to occur if pathogens in another person’s blood or saliva come into contact with any soft tissue on your body. Every dental appointment—even a simple cleaning—involves the risk of blood or saliva from the mouth getting on instruments or furniture. Moreover, dental instruments come into contact with the soft tissue inside the mouth all the time. Because most people don’t know that they have an illness until they have already been contagious for several days, a lack of sterilization exposes everybody, dental team and patients alike, to many different illnesses.

Who Provides Dental Sterilization?

Typically, a dentist relies on the dental assistant for matters of sterilization and instrument safety. The dental assistant collects tools used after every cleaning or procedure, cleans them, and sterilizes them according to CDC protocols and the procedures laid out by the dental office. This is far from the only task a dental assistant performs, but it is one of the most important. For the dentist’s part, every hygienist and trained dentist should be able to identify equipment and tools that have not been properly sterilized. This can be a simple matter of noting open packaging material or spotting telltale signs of instrument use. Even though dentists rely on their assistants to make sure that a busy office runs smoothly, they should know the value of proper sterilization and do their best to enforce those procedures in the office.

When you sit in the dentistry chair and get ready for a tooth cleaning or dental procedure, you can rest assured knowing that no trace of bacteria from another patient is on the instruments that are going into your mouth. Thanks to necessary dental sterilization procedures, all instruments used during your visit are either brand new—literally right out of the wrapper—or cleaned so thoroughly that no microbial organisms from previous patients remain. The sterilization procedure serves as the office’s front line of defence against infection, providing you with a safe and healthy experience.

Andrea Galick

Andrea Galick is an accomplished Dental Hygienist (RDH) with a passion for helping patients achieve optimal oral health. Andrea has built a reputation as a caring and skilled practitioner who puts her patients at ease and provides individualized care that meets their unique needs.