Do dentists use new tools for each patient? [Explained]

For many of us, going to the dentist is just another item on the semi-regular to-do list, like getting a regular health check-up at the doctor or servicing our cars, while for others it is the most daunting prospect on the calendar. Yet when was the last time we stopped to think about what happens to us at the dentist? How hygienic is it? Crucially, do dentists use new tools for each patient?

Do Dentists use new tools for each patient?

 Dentists use new disposable tools or disposable attachments for tools as often as possible, and each disposable tool or attachment is only ever used on one patient. In instances where disposable tools or attachments cannot be used for every patient, dentists make sure tools are completely sterilized first. Dentists are held to the same standard and expectation of infection control as other medical professionals, and the health and safety of each patient should be their primary concern. Hospital-grade disinfectants and disposable protective coverings are also used throughout dental practices and offices to maintain hygiene standards.

Do Dentists use sterile tools for every patient?

 Yes, dentists use sterilized tools for every patient, whether they are disposable tools or disposable attachments that are kept in sealed, sterilized packets up until use, or re-useable tools that are completely sterilized by dentists themselves before being used on each patient.

The industry standard is that disposable tools should be used as often as possible and should be the first choice for use among dentists where the choice is available. Reusable tools should only be used when the alternative of disposable tools is not possible.

What do dentists use to clean their tools?

 Dentists typically use one of three methods to clean their tools – manual scrubbing, ultrasonic cleaning, and automatic instrument washers which eliminate the requirement to rinse tools by hand. 

Manual scrubbing is, as might be obvious, where instruments are soaked in detergent or enzymatic cleaner if they cannot be washed immediately after use. They are cleaned in controlled environments, with as little interference from potential contaminants as possible.

Ultrasonic cleaning is where soundwaves are passed through a solution that tools are placed in for cleaning, and the soundwaves shake loose any debris from the tools to allow them to be further cleaned through manual scrubbing or instrument washers. Often, all three of these cleaning methods are used in conjunction with each other to clean tools that must be reused and are not disposable. 

Once cleaned, there are several methods that dentists can then use to further sterilize their instruments, such as steam sterilization, dry heat sterilization, and unsaturated chemical vapor sterilization. 

Steam sterilization (also known as autoclaves) involves each instrument being covered in steam at a specific temperature and pressure for an exact amount of time, to best kill the microorganisms on that specific instrument. Temperatures for the autoclave process can range between 250-273 degrees Fahrenheit (121-134 degrees Celsius).

Dry heat sterilization can be done in 2 ways – using static air or using forced air. With static air, instruments are placed in an oven-style chamber, where heating causes hot air to rise using natural convection. With forced air, heat is circulated through the chamber at approximately 300-375 degrees Fahrenheit (149-191 degrees Celsius) and is pumped through at very high speeds.

Unsaturated chemical vapor sterilization is where alcohol, acetone, formaldehyde, ketone, and water are all combined to make a vapor which can then be applied to instruments at high pressure and high temperature (270 degrees Fahrenheit or 132 degrees Celsius) in order to sterilize them. 

In addition to the 3 sterilization methods discussed above, there are other, less popular, methods of sterilization in use for dental equipment, such as wiping down instruments using rubbing alcohol, boiling (which cannot be used on all instruments), and glass bead sterilizers (which are widely considered to be unreliable).

How long does it take to sterilize dental instruments?

 The length of time that it takes to sterilize dental instruments depends on the type of sterilization method used and the temperature at which they are being cleaned. For example, if sterilizing using unsaturated chemical vapor sterilization, instruments are sterilized at 270 degrees Fahrenheit and are required to be sterilized at this temperature for between 20 to 40 minutes. 

Dry heat sterilization using forced air at 300-375 degrees Fahrenheit needs to be maintained for 12-150 minutes in order for the sterilization to work effectively.

 Equally, autoclave sterilization can take anywhere from 4-30 minutes (depending on whether instruments are wrapped or unwrapped during the process), and then require a 25-40-minute-long drying cycle after sterilization before the process can be considered complete. 

Once sterilized, instruments are placed in a sterilized plastic sleeve or envelope until they are ready for use.

 Do dentists clean equipment between patients?

 Where possible, dentists and dental assistants will clean equipment between patients. If the time between patients will not allow for reusable instruments to be fully cleaned and sterilized, they should be soaked in detergent or enzymatic solution, as instruments are at the beginning of the manual scrubbing process, to remove any debris and allow the cleaning process to start before the instruments can be fully cleaned and sterilized later on in the day. All instruments must be cleaned, sterilized, or disposed of by the end of the working day.


Ultimately, the answer is that while dentists do not use new tools for every patient due to a variety of factors, they do use fully sterile tools and tool attachments for every patient, with disposable tools and attachments in use as often as possible. Patient care and infection control are at the forefront of dental care, and dentists, dental assistants, and their wider teams all strive to reassure and calm patients, with as much cleanliness as possible to create a safe and sterile environment, for what is to many patients a nerve-wracking experience.