Disposable VS. Steel 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.
The 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.