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A Sharp Observation

Researchers have discovered that surgeons, in marking sites to cut,
can safely reuse Sharpies.

Spring 2009
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Sharpie pen

Grant Cornett/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Felt-tip pens are ubiquitous not only in offices but also in hospitals. It’s standard practice for a surgeon to mark the spots on a patient’s body where he or she will need to cut. Afterward the pen is discarded to prevent the spread of infection.

Now, it turns out, surgeons may be putting too fine a point on the matter. They prefer Sharpies because the indelible ink doesn’t smudge, the same quality that makes the pen a favorite of autograph hounds and sports memorabilia collectors. But can they be reused? To find out, researchers at the University of Alberta contaminated Sharpies and surgical pens (both of which are allowed for marking) with four types of bacteria, including two, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and vancomycin-resistant enterococci, that resist some antibiotics. Then both sets of pens were capped.

Twenty-four hours later, the surgical markers were still contaminated, but the Sharpies, which use alcohol-based ink, were not. As long as the barrel of the pen is cleaned with an alcohol swab between patients, as is done with stethoscopes, surgeons can hold on to their Sharpies, the researchers concluded. They presented their results last October at a joint meeting of the American Society for Microbiology and the Infectious Diseases Society of America. The researchers speculate that going all-Sharpie could save hospitals tens of thousands of dollars per year.

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