What Is Sterile Processing?

 Reviewed by Mayuri Jhala, BCom, CER, CRCST 

August 9, 2022



What Is Sterile Processing?

When you consider healthcare facility departments, the areas that come to mind probably include the operating room, intensive care unit, emergency department, pediatric ward and other departments. You might not be aware of the sterile processing department. These departments ensure every procedure in the facility is performed with clean instruments. Thus, the sterile processing department is an integral part of any medical facility.

Learn what you need to know about sterile processing, including what it is, why it's important and information on the techniques and instruments used. 

What Is Sterile Processing?

The main role of sterile processing is to maintain a clean and sanitary healthcare environment. Sterile processing has a particular focus on surgical instruments and equipment. In that light, sterile processing in a hospital setting and other facilities involves cleaning, preparing, sterilizing, storing, and tracking reusable medical devices used during surgical procedures. 

Hospitals and surgery centers typically have a sterile processing department (SPD). The SPD is also known as central supply or sterile supply departments. These departments are areas of a healthcare facility where the sterilization of various medical devices occurs. It's crucial for healthcare facilities to have a separate department where instruments are sterilized to avoid duplicate use or contamination of unused tools. 

The process by which each instrument is sterilized varies according to its use, material and other factors, but there is a general process for surgical instruments. With this process, a sterile processing technician:

  1. Takes the device to the decontamination area from the operating room. 
  2. Manually cleans the surgical instrument.
  3. Places the device into a specialized cleaner or irrigator.
  4. Transfers the surgical instrument from the specialized cleaner or irrigator to a disinfecting machine. 
  5. Transports the device from the disinfecting machine to a packing area to prepare it for sterilization. The instruments are also put in packaging that ensures their sterility until used.
  6. Sterilizes the device and sends it back to the operating room if it's needed immediately or transfers it to a sterile storage area until an operation calls for its use. 

Why Is the Sterilization Process Important?

The main reasons sterilization is important in healthcare settings are patient safety and regulatory compliance. Improperly sterilized surgical instruments may contain harmful bacteria or chemicals that can harm patient outcomes and health. 

Approximately 1.7 million hospitalized patients contract healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) each year. Surgical site infections (SSIs) account for over 17% of all HAIs. As such, SSIs are a substantial cause of illness, prolonged hospitalizations, and mortality among hospitalized individuals. These statistics highlight the continued importance of the sterilization process. 

Staying within the boundaries of regulatory compliance is also a key reason for sterilization. Sterilization regulations ensure high patient care and safety standards are always kept. 

Complying with sterilization regulations is also in the hospital or surgical center's best interest. If a patient experiences a harmful outcome from an SSI or improperly sterilized surgical device, they may have grounds for legal action against the medical facility. The legal action may harm the facility's reputation and cause financial repercussions.

What Are the 3 Types of Sterilization?

Numerous types of sterilization exist. Three common types include steam, dry-heat, and low-temperature sterilization. Here is some information on these three types of sterilization. 


With steam sterilization, the combination of heat and moisture destroys microorganisms. Instruments are exposed to direct steam at precise temperatures and pressures for a specified time. Steam sterilization exposes surgical instruments to temperatures of 250-270 degrees Fahrenheit

The main methods used to create enough pressure and heat for steam sterilization are either vacuum or gravity displacement technology. With the gravity displacement sterilizer, steam enters a chamber and forces air out of the bottom. The vacuum sterilizer is similar but removes air with a vacuum before the steam enters the chamber. 

A sterile processing technician might maintain 250 degrees for 30 minutes in a gravity displacement sterilizer or 270 degrees in a pre-vacuum sterilizer for four minutes. These times and temperatures will vary based on the materials the technician is sterilizing.

This sterilization method is the most dependable and widely used due to these characteristics:

  • Non-toxic
  • Inexpensive
  • Rapid killing of microorganisms
  • Swift heating and penetration of various fabrics

Some considerations of steam sterilization include: 

  • Potential corrosion of metal devices
  • Combustion of certain lubricants
  • Longer hardening times with plaster cast
  • Decreased function of some instruments

Dry Heat



Dry heat sterilization takes moisture out of the equation when sterilizing medical devices. This method is only used for instruments that moist heat may damage or cannot penetrate, such as: 

  • Bulk powders
  • Oil and petroleum products
  • Sharp tools

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) specifies that dry heat sterilizers expose instruments to temperatures of 340 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 minutes, 320 degrees Fahrenheit for 120 minutes, or 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 150 minutes. The two types of dry-heat sterilizers are:

  • Forced-air sterilizers: These heating units contain a motor-driven blower that circulates heated air through a chamber at a high velocity for quick heating. 
  • Static-air sterilizers: Heating coils at the bottom of the heating unit cause hot air to rise through a convection process. This method is slower in heating and has less consistent temperature control than forced-air sterilizers. 

Ethylene Oxide (EtO)

EtO sterilization is a form of low-temperature sterilization — between 99-145 degrees Fahrenheit. EtO is a colorless and flammable gas that kills microorganisms by disrupting cellular growth and proliferation. This type of sterilization is only used for instruments that may be sensitive to heat and moisture, as EtO is a toxic chemical. Since many materials absorb EtO, aeration is necessary following EtO sterilization. 

Sterile Processing Instruments

There are many different sterile processing instruments. The type of instruments sterile processing technicians use varies according to the method they use. Here are some instruments commonly used in sterile processing departments:

  • Autoclaves: An autoclave is another name for a steam sterilizing unit or chamber. Surgical instruments are placed inside the autoclave and exposed to sterilizing steam at high temperatures and pressures.
  • Washing and decontamination systems: Before sterilizing surgical instruments, they're washed and decontaminated. These systems include decontamination sinks, ultrasonic cleaners, automated disinfectors, and other equipment. 
  • Gauges: Each sterilization unit has gauges that detect pressure amounts and chemical concentrations. 
  • Thermometers: Sterilization units also contain thermometers that keep track of the temperature inside the unit. 
  • Recorders: The recorder of a sterilization unit keeps track of the data inputs and outputs for the heat, pressure, and chemical amounts. The recorder prints this data out for healthcare facility records and quality assurance. Recording this data is necessary to comply with regulatory standards. 

What Does a Sterile Processing Technician Do?

A sterile processing technician is a healthcare worker who oversees the process of cleaning and sterilizing surgical instruments. Here are some of the responsibilities of a sterile processing technician: 

  • Operate and maintain all sterile processing instruments and machinery. 
  • Follow sterilization parameters established by the CDC, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI), and other regulatory organizations. 
  • Wear proper protective equipment, such as safety glasses, gowns, masks, and gloves. 
  • Maintain quality assurance (QA) and sterilization records. 
  • Communicate with operating room staff to deliver the instruments they need. 
  • Coordinate with various departments to ensure their facility sets are sufficiently stocked. 
  • Prepare case carts for delivering instruments to operating rooms.

With those responsibilities, a sterile processing technician plays a pivotal role in the safe functioning of any medical facility. If you have strong organization and communication skills and can keep up in a fast-paced environment, you might find sterile processing to be a rewarding rather than stressful field.

Enroll in a Sterile Processing Program With AIMS Education

If sterile processing sounds like a career that suits your skills and interests, consider enrolling in our sterile processing technician training program at AIMS Education. Learn more about this class on our program page or request more information about becoming a sterile processing technician.