Proper use of single-use and disposable items is key to passing QA reviews, but sterilization and infection control procedures are often misunderstood or overlooked.

What do I need to know about single-use items?

Before examining single-use items, it’s important to understand the definitions of critical and semi-critical dental items and instruments.

  • Critical items and instruments are those which penetrate soft tissue or bone or enter into contact with the bloodstream or other normally sterile tissue. Some examples are bone chisels, scalers, forceps and scalpels.
  • Semi-critical items and instruments do not penetrate soft tissue or bone but do come into contact with mucous membranes or non-intact skin. Some examples are mirrors, amalgam condensers and reusable impression trays.

All critical and semi-critical dental items and instruments must be heat sterilized unless doing so would damage or degrade them.

What about critical and semi-critical items that are damaged by heat?

Heat sensitive items are available as single-use disposable items and include (but are not limited to):

  • Foam and plastic impression trays
  • Plastic air and water syringe tips
  • Plastic saliva ejectors and high-speed evacuator tips
  • Plastic mouth mirrors and prophylaxis angles
  • Prophylaxis cups and brushes
  • Pumice used in laboratory lathes
  • Cotton products, such as gauze
  • Patient care gloves, which should be removed and disposed of every time staff steps out of the operatory for any reason

Equipment and instruments labeled as “single-use” or “disposable” must never be sterilized and reused.

How can I store my single-use items?

Acceptable storage for sterile instruments and disposable items includes containers, drawers and cabinets that can be closed off from the external environment.

Unacceptable storage places include under sinks or other spaces where sterile instruments and their packaging might become wet or damaged. You should also take care not to store heat sensitive items in areas where they be exposed to rapidly fluctuating temperatures, such as near vents.

How should I dispose of single-use items?

Contact your local waste management service for instructions about the proper method of disposal in your area. California’s Dental Practice Act specifies: “Contaminated solid waste shall be disposed of according to applicable local, state, and federal environmental standards.”

One way to be sure you’re on the right side of disposal standards is to check with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Many laws about the proper disposal of items are based on OSHA standards, so they can be a handy reference for broad guidance.

How does using single-use items affect my patients?

For patients with concerns about infection control and prevention, explaining that disposable items are single use items may help put them at ease.

  • Reassure your patients. Tell them that their health and safety are important to you. Let them know about the infection control procedures your office follows, particularly those developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and any required by state or local authorities.
  • Describe the infection control practices your office takes. Point out the steps you take like hand washing, use of personal protective equipment, decontamination of surfaces, use of disposable items and sterilization of non-disposable items.

Remember, patients will observe firsthand your commitment to their well-being and quality dental care.

Proper usage, storage and disposal of single-use items help you avoid quality assurance issues and protect yourself, your staff and your patients.