Sterilization of the Dental Handpiece?

Written by Heather Siler

Reusable medical devices such as high-speed, slow-speed, electric (cordless), endodontic, and surgical handpieces should be cleaned and properly sterilized after each patient use. This includes all parts of the handpiece (nosecone, head, and motor) and attachments (reusable contra or prophy angle). In fact, any intraoral device that can be removed from air or waterlines should be cleaned and sterilized according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American Dental Association (ADA), and the manufacturers of such devices.

Studies have found that the internal gears of handpiece motors can become contaminated during a procedure and, as a result, may contaminate the rest of the handpiece. Therefore, using an unsterile device could lead to cross-contamination between patients. Surface disinfection and immersion in a chemical germicide isn’t acceptable. Chemical vapor and autoclave sterilization are the only approved methods.

Most handpieces sold today can withstand heat and chemical vapor sterilization. Handpieces that can’t tolerate the process may be retrofitted to allow for sterilization. The FDA has very clear guidelines regarding the use of older devices that can’t be cleaned and sterilized properly. If in doubt as to whether or not a device can be sterilized safely, the FDA provides a searchable database online of devices that can tolerate the procedure.  

Buying multiple handpieces can be expensive, but following the manufacturer’s directions can ensure that they have a long lifespan. Cleaning and lubrication is the most important part of keeping the device in great shape and ensures durability and top performance.

Mandatory sterilization of handpieces is controlled by each state dental board. As of this writing, it’s mandated in the following states: Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Oregon, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, and Washington State. It’s estimated that most states will require proper sterilization at some point, so it may be wise to go ahead and make the investment. Being compliant now will help with the transition and keep the practice running smoothly.