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How Do Dentists Avoid Replacing Tools Constantly

Updated on July 19, 2013
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When you go to the dentist, you've probably noticed that every time, your dentist pulls tools out of a package. At first glance, it might appear that they use new tools for every patient, but that would be insanely expensive to maintain as a practice. If you've ever taken a look around the offices, you may have noticed a machine that appears to clean the dentists tools—an autoclave machine. Autoclaving metals ensures their sterility, and works by placing the tools in a very hot, pressurized environment to kill germs. The tools used in the office aren't brand new every time, but they are extraordinarily clean. But autoclaving is a little more complex than just applying heat, and it's not the only way dentists keep their tools in tip-top shape.

Autoclaving

An autoclave is a machine similar to a pressure cooker that sterilizes metals and glass. It exposes materials to highly-pressurized steam at 121 degrees Celsius (just about 250 degrees Fahrenheit) for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the material and how much of it needs sterilization. In addition to being used for dental tools, it's also used in prosthetics fabrication, veterinary applications, the tattooing and body piercing industries, medicine, and microbiology.

Autoclaving is a process that requires attention to detail. Autoclave bags need to be packed in such a way that allows steam penetration—bags can't be overloaded with instruments. This is likely why you usually see one or two tools per bag at the dentist. The bags must also be left open prior to autoclaving, because if they're put into the machine closed, the temperature inside the bag can't rise high enough to sufficiently decontaminate the tools. Since the bags—which are usually made out of paper and a sort of plastic called polypropylene—are impervious to steam, closing them before sterilization means the process won't be effective. Autoclaved metal instruments will maintain their sterility and are safe to be used for up to 96 weeks after the process.

Autoclaving, by nature, puts metals into a highly corrosive environment, so it's important to employ methods to prevent rusting and corrosion, especially given what these tools are used for. It's also important to maintain the parts of the autoclave and make sure they themselves don't become corroded, as that can compromise the device's effectiveness.

That's where electropolishing comes in.

Electropolishing

Electropolishing is a little bit more complicated than autoclaving, not to mention an entirely different process. While autoclaving sterilizes tools, electropolishing polishes tools so they are resistant to corrosion. The two processes go hand in hand when trying to preserve the integrity of a tool. Where autoclaving uses simply high heat and water to create a steam in a pressurized environment, electropolishing works by immersing metals into a bath of a chemical solution, usually containing sulfuric and phosphoric acid. Electropolishing effectively deburrs metals—or makes their surfaces more homogenous. The smoother surface prevents imperfections in the metal from becoming sites for potential contamination or corrosion.

Electropolishing can be used both on the dental instruments as well as the autoclave machine parts themselves. Since water—and in turn, steam—are corrosive environments for metals to be in, corrosion within an autoclaving machine can also be an issue. Companies like Able Electropolishing provide services that electropolish metals to ensure they are at their best quality and to ensure they last as long as possible.

In addition to making metals smoother and resistant to corrosion, the finished product is extremely clean—polish tools are left completely free of dust particles, foreign debris, oils, and other foreign matters.

In essence, dentists are able to avoid having to replace their dental tools more frequently thanks to processes like autoclaving and electropolishing. Electropolishing and deburring ensures that metals are less susceptible to corrosion, which is a concern for both the tools as well as the inside parts of the autoclave, and the finished metals are left extremely smooth and clean, which prevents contamination and makes the autoclaving process more efficient.

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