The surprising truth about autoclaves and sterilizers: what you need to know


Autoclaves and sterilizers are important tools for maintaining sterility in medical facilities, laboratories, veterinary clinics, and even other industries such as tattooing and body piercings. However, despite their increasing popularity in the past years, there are still some common misconceptions about these tools and how they work exactly. Even within the healthcare industry, some people still aren’t sure whether there are any differences between the two and if the two terms are simply synonyms or not.

In Celitron’s next article, we'll explore the surprising truth about autoclaves and sterilizers, including some basic guidelines that you NEED to know about autoclaves and sterilization, especially if you work in medical settings.

Autoclaves and sterilizers are NOT necessarily the same thing!

Autoclaves and sterilizers are both tools that are used to maintain a sterile working environment and reduce the risks of infections in various industries. That much is clear.

But let’s clear up the most common misconception that confuses many people about these tools.

While all autoclaves are sterilizers, not all sterilizers can be considered autoclaves! Autoclaves are a TYPE of sterilizer machine, also known as steam sterilizers.

If you do some research on the internet, you’ll find that these two terms are often used interchangeably, even though there are certain differences between the two. Autoclaves are sterilizer machines that combine high-pressure and high-temperature steam to sterilize certain medical items and waste.

The term “sterilizers” refers to a broader category of tools that can use various methods to sterilize their load, including heat and steam, but in other cases, also radiation and chemicals.

How do sterilizers work?

As mentioned earlier, sterilizers can use various methods to sterilize items. Heat sterilization is one of the most common methods, which involves using dry heat or steam to kill microorganisms. Chemical sterilization uses chemicals, such as ethylene oxide, to kill microorganisms. Radiation sterilization uses gamma rays or electron beams to kill microorganisms.

How do autoclaves work?

Autoclaves are a type of sterilizer that work by using high-pressure and high-temperature steam to sterilize items. The steam is generated by heating water to temperatures ranging between 121 and 134 degrees Celsius which can kill bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms.

Steam sterilizers come in various sizes, from tabletop autoclaves used in small clinics (with a capacity chamber of around 25 liters) to large autoclaves used in hospitals (with a capacity chamber ranging between 110 liters all the way to 880 liters). The chamber is where the instruments and waste are loaded and unloaded after the steam sterilization process.

There are also different types of autoclaves. Some use gravity cycles for the steam sterilization process, while others use a powerful vacuum pump to completely remove all air from the chamber of the steam sterilizer.

Gravity autoclaves are considered much more advanced thanks to their versatility to treat more types of loads, as well as increased speed, automated features, security functions, and even energy and water-saving systems. All of Celitron’s autoclaves use gravity cycles regardless of the size of their capacity chamber.

What are the steps of the autoclave sterilization process?

  1. Load items into the autoclave and ensure they are properly prepared for sterilization.
  2. Set the appropriate parameters for sterilization, including temperature, pressure, and time.
  3. Start the autoclave cycle and allow it to run its full course.
  4. Allow the autoclave to cool before removing items.

What are the benefits of using autoclaves over other sterilization methods?

Autoclaves offer several benefits over other sterilization methods. One of the most significant advantages is their ability to sterilize a wide range of items. Autoclaves can sterilize items that simply cannot be sterilized using other methods, such as heat-sensitive items.

Another benefit of autoclaves is their undeniable efficiency in eliminating microorganisms, especially in the case of vacuum steam sterilizers. The high-pressure steam can penetrate all areas of an item, ensuring complete sterilization. Autoclaves also offer a cost-effective solution for sterilization, as they require minimal maintenance and have a long lifespan.

What are some other common misconceptions about autoclaves and sterilizers?

Apart from using the two terms interchangeably, many people think that autoclaves and sterilizers can sterilize anything. While autoclaves and sterilizers CAN sterilize a wide range of items, some materials cannot be sterilized using high-pressure steam.

Examples include:

  • Low-density (LDPE) and High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
  • Polystyrene (PS),Polyurethane
  • Acids, organic solvents
  • Chlorine-based products, sulphates
  • Non-stainless steel
  • Pharmaceuticals, pills
  • Chlorine, hypochlorite, bleach
  • Explosive and flammable materials
  • Corrosive and toxic materials
  • Radioactive materials
  • Paraffin-embedded tissue

What items can be sterilized using autoclaves?

  • Stainless steel, metallic medical tools, surgical instruments
  • Latex gloves, vinyl (inside biohazardous autoclave waste bags)
  • Glassware (Pyrex, Pyrex type materials, or type I borosilicate glass)
  • Contaminated solid items
  • Paper (if placed inside a biohazardous autoclave waste bag)
  • Polypropylene (PP secondary containers) and polycarbonate (PC) plastics (keep containers and bags open so that the steam can penetrate them)
  • Plastic pipette tips (inside appropriate biohazard beds)
  • Media Solutions
  • Biological tissue culture flasks and plates
  • Hospital linens, textile materials

IMPORTANT: always make sure to check the manufacturer’s instructions to see exactly what types of materials can be treated by the autoclave sterilizer model you chose!

What are some best practices for autoclave use and maintenance?

To ensure effective sterilization and prolong the lifespan of an autoclave, it's important to follow best practices for use and maintenance. Some best practices include:

  • Only load items that are suitable for autoclave sterilization, and ensure they are properly prepared for sterilization.
  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions for loading the autoclave and setting the appropriate parameters for sterilization.
  • Regularly clean the autoclave to prevent the buildup of residue that can affect sterilization effectiveness.
  • Regularly inspect and maintain the autoclave, including checking for leaks, calibrating the temperature and pressure controls, and replacing any worn or damaged parts.

Common errors in autoclave sterilization you should avoid

  • Overloading the autoclave, which can affect the effectiveness of sterilization.
  • Improper loading of items, such as stacking items on top of each other, which can prevent steam from reaching all areas of the items.
  • Incorrect parameters for sterilization, such as using the wrong temperature or pressure settings.
  • Failing to properly clean the autoclave, which can affect sterilization effectiveness.

Want to learn more about autoclaves and sterilizers? Not sure which model would suit your facility the best and how to install it?

CONTACT OUR TEAM for any other questions and for a free quote!

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