As recently as 150 years ago, western society still had a lot to learn about hygiene. Even medical professionals such as doctors and dentists did not always understand the necessity to keep their workspaces clean at all — let alone clean enough to be considered sterile. Hand-washing was a modern recommendation.
Now that we have a greater understanding of bacteria and infection, there's plenty of legislation in place to keep patients safe. People generally understand what sterility is, and that it must be achieved in order to keep medical procedures safe. However, individual procedures and practices may not be common knowledge. So how exactly does your dentist keep their equipment safe and clean for you?
It's exceptionally rare that a piece of dental equipment will be washed by hand. This is for several reasons — firstly because it's much slower than using a machine, and secondly because there will always be the potential for human error. As such, most pieces will be loaded onto a tray and passed through a machine's washing cycle, not unlike a domestic dishwasher. Only pieces which are too large to be placed inside this machine, or which are exceptionally fragile, will be hand-washed.
The only way of ensuring that all bacteria on a piece of equipment have been killed off is to expose them to high temperatures. For this reason, dental equipment is designed to be made out of materials which can resist high temperatures without damaging or deteriorating them. Dental surgeries will place their equipment inside a machine called an autoclave. This machine runs its contents through a heating cycle, holding them at high temperature for long enough that they are guaranteed to be perfectly sterile. This happens between every use; every time a piece of equipment touches you, it will be set aside for this procedure.
Designated Containers for Contaminated Equipment
It's not possible to sterilise equipment as the dentist works. An assistant will run these processes in the background while the dentist continues to work through their appointments, but it's not possible — or sensible — to run them for each individual piece. As such, there are dedicated containers for equipment which has come into contact with a patient. This is considered contaminated, and therefore must be kept safe and separate. There are also carefully sealed containers for contaminated waste, such as cotton buds stained with blood or saliva.
This is, of course, only a sample; there are countless ways of keeping patients and equipment safe at a dental surgery which require years of practice to master and understand. However, understanding some of the processes should go some way to reassure you that hygiene and safety are of the highest priority in modern dental work.