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Why clean my dental instruments when I can just sterilise them?

The instrument cleaning process is essential to maintaining infection control and preventing the spread of disease within dental surgeries. Human blood, saliva
and oral tissue are full of pathogens, bacteria and viruses – so dental equipment must be effectively cleaned and sterilised after each use.

Cleaning, disinfection and sterilisation are terms that are frequently used when discussing infection control. Though they’re sometimes used interchangeably,
they’re actually three different processes that achieve different outcomes.

Cleaning physically removes foreign material and pathogens but doesn’t necessarily destroy bacteria and viruses.

Disinfection destroys most pathogenic organisms but isn’t effective against bacterial spores.

Sterilisation kills all forms of life, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and spores.

Why dental instruments must be cleaned before being sterilised

A thorough cleaning process should precede all disinfection and sterilisation procedures. If debris isn’t physically removed upfront, it can compromise the effectiveness of the disinfection and sterilisation process. The outer coating of any residual soil or biofilm will be hardened during sterilisation, with the underlying organic material untouched and a potential source of cross infection.    

The three main methods used to clean dental instruments prior to sterilisation are:

  • Manual cleaning
  • Ultrasonic bath
  • Automatic washer disinfector

Cleaning dental instruments manually

In dental practices, manual cleaning is generally carried out using the immersion method. Staff should wear personal protective equipment (PPE), including heavy-duty gloves, mask, googles and an apron to protect them from splatter during the cleaning process. Debris is removed by scrubbing instruments with water and a neutral or near-neutral pH detergent like <example>.

Using an ultrasonic cleaner

Ultrasonic cleaners use ultra high frequency sound waves passing through water to remove contaminants from the surfaces being cleaned. They’re more effective and faster than manual cleaning and produce results without scratching, brushing or scraping instruments. 

Washer disinfectors

Washer disinfectors clean, disinfect and dry dental equipment but do not sterilise it. They use hot and high-pressure sprays and can usually accommodate a large volume of instruments; however, a typical cleaning cycle may take around 1 hour to complete. 

What are the Australian Sterilisation Standards?

The Australian Sterilisation Standards contain specifications and guidelines that regulate sterilisation practice in Australia. AS/NZS 4815 and 4187 are the national standards for reprocessing reusable instruments and equipment in health service organisations like dental practices. 

AS/NZS 4187 outlines that cleaning is an essential first step in sterilising equipment to the required national standards and requires compliance with four key areas:

  1. Segregation of clean and dirty activities
  2. Design of storage areas for sterile stock
  3. Replacement of non-compliant cleaning, disinfecting and sterilising equipment
  4. Monitoring requirements for water quality

What are critical, semi-critical and non-critical dental tools?

The risk for infection depends on an instrument’s use; this risk assessment informs sterilisation requirements. Dental tools and equipment are categorised as: 


  • Critical – a medical device that comes into contact with the vascular system or sterile tissue (forceps, surgical burs and scalpels)
  • Semi-critical – a medical device that comes into contact with mucous membranes or non-intact skin (dental mirrors, handpieces and impression trays)
  • Non-critical – a medical device that only comes into contact with intact skin but not mucous membranes (prosthetic gauges and bib chains)     
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What are critical, semi-critical and non-critical dental tools?

Dental clinics across Australia trust Gienic’s extensive range of premium sterilisation products to protect patients against infection. We supply Helix tests and refills, emulators, labels, logbooks, autoclave tape, sterilisation pouches, and more to keep your instruments uncontaminated and patients safe.  

Shop Gienic’s sterilisation products or call (03) 9008 6358 to place an order today. We offer a best price guarantee, same-day dispatch and free delivery for orders over $350.

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