Hot! Disposable VS. Steel Tubes

Comparing Steel Tattoo tubes vs. Disposable tattoo tubes

By Larry Brogan

As with most comparisons, there are pros and cons. Such is the same when looking at the difference between disposable tattoo tubes and stainless steel tubes.

On the side of steel, there is durability, stiffness and re-usability, provided they are properly cleaned and sterilized, plus the ability to change out any worn parts or change grip size. Some artists feel that the weight of steel tubes helps to balance out the weight of the tattoo machine and provides the artist with a better view of the needles at the tip of the tube.

The negative side of steel tubes starts with their need to be properly cleaned and sterilized, which, in most tattoo shops, can be one of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs we encounter. Already laden with biohazardous fluids, there are chemicals in cleaning solutions that can be harmful to one’s health. Ultrasonic cleaners are full of a combination of many people’s blood and body fluids as well as dangerous chemicals, and they carry a very real risk of getting this mess on or in your body.

Ultrasonic cleaners work by generating high frequency sound waves to agitate in a solution of water and chemical cleaning compound. Cavitation bubbles are induced by agitation on contaminants adhering to the tubes, with the intention of thoroughly removing tightly adhering or embedded particles of ink and body fluids from the solid surfaces of the instruments. This process causes microscopic particles to become airborne and cover everything within proximity of the ultrasonic, contaminating everything in its path, including any person near it, the walls, counter tops, floors and ceilings. Consider the chance of getting any of this into an open wound or mucus membranes such as your eye. Whether from splash, splatter or particles floating in the air and filling your lungs, this is something that can be potentially harmful to your health.

Steel tubes need to be maintained not only by proper cleaning and sterilization but by regularly filing the inside of tube tips, especially in the case of shader tubes, to remove the grooves that form from the needles wearing via friction of metal on metal during the tattoo process. These metal particles mix with the ink, are pushed into the tattoo and can contaminate and muddy your colors, most notably yellows and whites.

The added weight of steel tubes, especially when using large metal grips, can create fatigue on your hand and help lead to problems such as tendonitis and carpel tunnel. While any repetitious job can perpetuate health issues, the extra weight of the tubes can significantly contribute to the problems.

While traveling for conventions or guest spots, steel tubes can be cause for alarm—especially when going through airport X-ray machines—and your luggage to be overweight and be the source of cross contamination, when coming home with dirty tubes.

Pros to using pre sterilized disposable tubes include the lack of added weight and fatigue on your hand and the ability to discard the used tube, when you are finished, potentially eliminating the need for ultrasonics, autoclaves and even a sterilization area all together. It makes health department inspections so much easier and can create hours of extra time in an artist’s work week, for things such as doing more tattoos, which equals making more money. Your clientele may appreciate and feel more at ease knowing that they are being tattooed with new and disposable equipment.

A great variety of disposable tubes are available to us at very reasonable price, sometimes as cheap as twenty cents each. When you compare the low cost and simplicity of tossing the tube away after the tattoo with the fact that you can do away with supplies such as autoclave bags, cleaning solutions, spore tests, scrubbing brushes, distilled water and equipment such as ultrasonic cleaners and autoclaves, not to mention the upkeep and maintenance on them and the added man hours it takes to perform the tasks of cleaning, scrubbing and sterilizing ,while factoring in the reduced risk of contaminating yourself and the shop, twenty to seventy-five cents each is a bargain.

biohazard disposal of tattoo tubesThe cons to using disposable tubes include inconsistent manufacturing such as bad tips where extra plastic can block the hole or tube stems that don’t fit into the tattoo machine or are weak and flex with the weight of the machine. Some artists feel that the vibration of the machine is increased by the use of plastic tubes. The tips on some disposables can be awkward or thick, making it more difficult to see exactly where the needle is in relation to the skin. There is also the issue of potential harm to the eco-system, due to the added plastic waste in landfills, from all the discarded tubes, but, with proper disinfection, they can be recycled along with other plastics.

Old-schoolers might argue that, by using disposable instruments, you ruin and tradition and integrity of the industry, especially in the case of apprentices not paying their dues and learning all the ins and outs of tattooing history. But if you really want to get old school, keep in mind that tattooers used to tattoo people for days and weeks using the same dirty needle and tube on scores of clients.

There are many styles of disposable tubes available to us today, some great and some not worth the plastic they were molded from, but, through testing and trial, you can find the right one to suit your needs. I strongly urge anyone trying disposable tubes for the first or even fifth time to try as many different kinds as it takes to find one that you are happy with and do several tattoos with them until you find one that fits your needs. Many artists have tried them once or twice and given up before they had the chance to really get a feel for it. As with any new tool, there is a learning curve and it takes a little time and practice to get used to it.

Note: Eliminating the ultrasonic cleaner and autoclave from your shop should only be done when using a completely pre-packaged and pre-sterilized set up of disposable tubes and needles from a reputable supplier. If body piercing is performed at the shop, these pieces of equipment may still be a necessity.


  1. I have had two tattoo’s done now using the disposable tubes. My friend also had one done. The same person did all three tattoos. The first one I got, the black came out a lot. They said I had used too much ointment. Fair enough. My friend and I went back to the same guy and we both need to have the black re-done again. I know I did not use too much ointment this time. We are having a hard time trying to decide if it is the gun… or the tattoo artist. Any thoughts?

    • Lindsay, while improper aftercare can lead to a bad heal and the loss of some color, the artist’ application has the most to do with getting a quality tattoo, but touch-ups are sometimes necessary, even when being tattooed by the best in the business. It should have nothing to do with using disposable tubes.

    • The “artist” didn’t lay the ink in correctly. No other excuse. The only time you’ll need a touch up on black is if you got a tribal piece done… even then, only if it was a really big piece.

  2. I have 12 tattoos and 16 piercings. I have 5 friends who are professional artists and I am in the process of learning. The reason your black is not holding can be from many things. First thing is the experience of the artist. Black ink, unfortunately, because of its boldness, is very hard to distribute evenly on people with very fair skin or very dark skin. Second, if you are a bleeder, it forces the ink back out. Third, if he has his set up where the needle is going in too deep, the color will not absorb correcly. When doing a tattoo, the needle is supposed to be set to where it only goes in to the depth of the side of a nickle. Now, I know over using Tattoo Goo can pull some color out and picking at the scab to early can as well. If your skin has that type of sensitivity, is it much safer to use A&D ointment and leave the tat open to air. And don’t cover it up. Take care. And constant filling-in isn’t exactly good either.

  3. Liz, they aren’t called ‘tats.’ That’s a ghetto term used by inmates. You should know that if you are learning the trade from a professional and, Lindsay, Larry is absolutely correct; you either didn’t take care of it or your artist sucks. Bottom line, you said that you know you didn’t put too much ointment, so that only leaves one conclusion…

  4. Gary, in Australia they are nicknamed “tatts,” and not just inmates call them that, lol. What’s the big deal? Or are you trying to stamp your authority as a professional. I mean, I look at forums, and, on just about every one, someone has to criticize, even if it’s the most trivial thing that is completely irrelevant.

  5. lol, JH,,you are sooo right man,always someone cutting someone up for nothing,lol, just to be heard,,

  6. Lets not forget a third option now available, disposables with stainless tips. I do believe that they will be around for quite a bit.

  7. Why is no one mentioning crappy, cheap ink can also be a cause of color loss… The fact is, extremely low-end inks have less pigment, resulting in more rapid color retention.

  8. Damnit, more rapid color loss and less retention. Sorry, typo.

  9. Fourth option: edible tattoo machine. Shit out diamonds.

  10. I have heard if u leave A&D ointment on a tattoo and coat and coat it it will end up pulling out color and wont scab right. Very important to remember to wash your tattoo if you use A&D. Better suggestion: just use unscented lotion.

  11. While the article is a bit old I figure I would chime in on a point I disagree with. The weight of a stainless tube is seen as a negative and this isnt necessarily so. If you use coil machines a heavier tube can help pull the weight forward so you dont have to flex your hand as much. This actually helps counter act carpal tunnel. It also allows the machine to balance forward instead of tipping backwards. The lack of weight in a disposable tube can make it so that the balance is way off and you have to fight the machine. Now for people who use new modern lightweight rotaries this is much less an issue. And the lighter disposables can even be a benefit. But for those of us that have heavier framed coil machines a big grip isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    My personal thought is when in the shop I much prefer my stainless tubes. Yes I spend time to clean and sterilize them. But in this day and age of everything gets thrown away I get a small bit of personal satisfaction in contributing less to the ever growing piles of trash in land fills.

  12. Totally agree with 8BALL,by personal experienced with the light weight rotaries using disposables tubes is great.
    But when it comes to coil machines a good size steel grip is always a big help with balance and vibration.
    So I have been doing line work with a coil and shade or color with a rotary for few years, and my hand is better than ever.
    Anyways all the film barriers,clip cord sleeves,machine bags ,ink caps,wash cups,garbage bags, disposable aprons,bottle bags, are going to the land fills too.

  13. Gary you’re an absolute ‘titt’…

  14. Gary so unnecessary, im a scratcher and i do better work than A LOT of shops in my city, who cares about terminology?

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