Whenever there's a public health crisis, people look to any kind of protective equipment they can find to keep themselves safe. While few people are going to be walking around in full Tyvek "moon suits" or face-shielding masks, gloves are one of the more common pieces of equipment people pick up.
How much can gloves help keep you safe? Which gloves are best? How long can you wear gloves safely? Let's take a look at the questions surrounding glove use.
Different Kinds of Gloves
First of all, it's worth talking about the different kinds of gloves you'll find on the market. You might be surprised at how many different kinds of gloves exist for protection.
We'll discard a few kinds of gloves from consideration. Decorative gloves, those thin fabric coverings people wear to classy dinners and on movie sets, aren't protective at all. Winter gloves, the thicker gloves designed to be warm in colder months, also aren't protective against disease or anything of the sort. Sure, a leather glove might protect against skin exposure, but they aren't disposable or easily washable like other kinds of protective gloves. Plus, they're bulky and not suitable for use in warmer climates.
Latex gloves are made of natural rubber and are one of the most common and least expensive kinds of protective gloves. A lot of people consider any kind of plastic glove a "latex" glove and use the term even when it doesn't apply.
Latex is not very resistant to things like acids and chemical spills, but it's perfectly suitable for things like food handling and medical situations, where it protects against blood pathogens. In cases of an airborne pathogen, they can only help so much, but they're fine against coming into physical contact with contaminated surfaces.
Latex also has one significant drawback, particularly in health and medical settings: many people are allergic to it. Wearing latex gloves leads to an exposure that can cause itching and hives on the hands, as well as respiratory symptoms like an itchy and runny nose and asthma-like symptoms. Obviously, if you're using them to protect against respiratory disease, this isn't a good thing.
Nitrile gloves are the blue plastic gloves you typically see in medical settings these days. They're cheap, they're disposable, and they're more chemically resistant than latex. They are generally used instead of latex gloves specifically because they provide all of the same benefits but do not trigger allergic reactions.
Neoprene gloves are similar to rubber. They tend to be thicker than other kinds of gloves, but not so thick that they hamper dexterity. Neoprene is great for protection against chemicals, including acids, fats, and alcohol. They're suitable for use in handling chemicals, but less so for daily protection. They're more expensive than nitrile or latex, however, and are less disposable.
PVC gloves are another kind of plastic glove, primarily used when working with oil and gas. They're extremely protective, but they hamper dexterity, and they're not generally disposable, and cost around $10 per pair or more.
PVA gloves are specialized gloves you're unlikely to see. They're great for handling chemicals in a specialized setting, but they dissolve in contact with water. Things like an airborne pathogen, for example, are carried on primarily water-based droplets, so these aren't a good choice for health situations.
Other specialized gloves include Butyl gloves, which are resistant to gasses, and Viton gloves, which are extremely protective but extremely expensive. Neither of them is suitable for regular use and are best left to scientists who need them for their work.
Picking Gloves for Regular Use
If you're considering wearing gloves on the regular for now, to keep yourself safe from environmental contamination and possible viral infection, most of the kinds of gloves above are overkill. You generally only need something like latex or nitrile gloves. These gloves are cheap, will protect you against surface contaminants, and can be discarded rather than washed.
Latex gloves and nitrile gloves are close enough to be the same kind of glove that we're going to talk about them more or less interchangeably. They both have similar levels of protection against surface contaminants, they both have similar levels of dexterity, and they both will have similar drawbacks. The one primary difference is that latex gloves can trigger allergies, so you want to make sure you're not allergic to latex before you invest in a box.
With disposable gloves like latex and nitrile, you're probably going to be switching them out several times throughout the day. Make sure you buy enough gloves to last for however long you intend to use them daily.
Proper Glove Use
Gloves protect your hands from coming into contact with contaminants. Whether this means disease, acids, paint, chemicals, radioactive materials, or whatever else doesn't really matter.
The point of wearing gloves is to protect your skin. Wearing gloves will not stop you from spreading contamination. Imagine that what you're working with is paint. If you touch something with wet paint on it, then touch something else – like your phone, your doorknobs, or your face – the paint will get on that other surface. This is identical to if you had touched it with your hands.
As such, gloves are only as protective as your habits. All of the current advice about not touching your face and washing your hands? You still need to do that despite wearing gloves.
Gloves are useful in a few circumstances. If you're a healthcare worker and need to use them when you're coming into contact with infected patients or dealing with blood and other bodily fluids, gloves are useful. Gloves can also protect your hands from chemicals you use to clean and sanitize your surroundings.
You should also change your gloves frequently, for a few reasons. First, they end up contaminated. Unless you plan to wash your hands thoroughly with gloves on to cleanse them, which you probably shouldn't with latex or nitrile gloves, anyway. Second, these kinds of gloves are made of thin material that is not very resistant to things like punctures and tears. Even small punctures can result in contamination working its way inside the glove.
For something like the current viral contamination we're all dealing with, gloves may not be very useful. You can put gloves on before interacting with public surfaces, like elevators and doorknobs, but they should be discarded before you touch other non-contaminated surfaces. Essentially, discard or change your gloves each time you would otherwise just wash your hands.
How Long Should You Wear Gloves?
If you still want to wear gloves, you're free to do so. You need to take proper precautions, like building the habit of not touching your face with the gloves, but that's no different than not wearing gloves.
Wearing gloves for an extended period can be uncomfortable, but it's not necessarily damaging. Studies have shown that regular glove use for up to three months has no ill effects on skin health. Obviously, you're not going to be wearing gloves 24/7 for three months, but long-term glove usage isn't dangerous.
That said, there are a few things you should consider when thinking about long-term glove usage.
First of all, as mentioned above, latex and nitrile gloves are very thin and are meant to be disposable. That's why they come in boxes with 25/50/100 of them, rather than being sold by the pair.
As such, these gloves can be torn and puncture easily. Sometimes, those punctures can be very small and difficult to notice. Gloves do NOT replace proper hand-washing and hygiene practices! If you're treating them as if they do, you're using them incorrectly and putting yourself at risk.
Gloves are good, however, in a few circumstances. For example, if you have cuts or wounds on your hands, wearing gloves can help protect that wound from exposure to contamination. A properly sealed bandage over the wound, covered by the glove, is about the best protection you're going to get.
Likewise, if you have dry and cracked skin, that's a break in the skin barrier. Those cracks in your skin can be a vector for disease, and that's the last thing you want. It's even worse when you realize hand sanitizer – which is alcohol-based – dries out your skin.
The solution to this problem can involve gloves, but what you really need is some kind of moisturizing lotion to protect your skin from drying out in the first place. Aquaphor is one of the common lotions used by healthcare workers, for example, though you can use any moisturizing lotion you feel like using.
It's generally not recommended that you wear latex gloves for a long period of time. Latex, in particular, can actually lead to you developing an allergy if you have a sensitivity, so wearing latex gloves repeatedly and for hours at a time can cause significant issues.
Nitrile gloves are safer for long-term use, but they still aren't recommended. Rather, treat them the same way dental workers do. Put a fresh pair of gloves on before you do something where you would encounter contaminated surfaces. For example, put a pair on when you exit your car to go into a store, or before you board public transportation, or before you enter a patient's room at a hospital.
When you're done with whatever task you're performing in a contaminated area, remove and discard the gloves. You don't need to bother with washing them, but you should make sure they are safely discarded, not left in a public space.
Once you've discarded the gloves, it's generally a good idea to wash your hands anyway. In addition to the possibility that they were punctured at some point during your task, the act of removing the gloves can mean you're touching them from the outside, which can simply contaminate your hands. Again, think of that paint metaphor.
To properly remove gloves, grasp them near the wrist area and peel them downwards, away from you. Don't discard the glove immediately; rather, hold it in your still-gloved hand. With your free hand, slide your fingers in under the wrist of the gloved hand. Don't touch the outside of the glove if you can help it; treat that surface as contaminated. Peel the remaining glove downward and over the other glove, so both gloves are inside out and one is inside the other. You can see a pictorial chart of this process here.
Should You Wear Gloves?
Gloves have their role to play in our current health crisis. That role just might not be what you expect it to be.
Gloves are great at protecting your hands from caustic chemicals such as bleach and other cleaning products. As such, you should use them when you're working with those chemicals and sanitizing your home, office, or anything you frequently touch.
Once you've completely sanitized surfaces, you can then safely discard your gloves and wash your hands. You'll probably want to wash your hands even if you didn't need to, simply because sweat from wearing the gloves will make them feel gross. We, of course, recommend sanitizing regularly and washing your hands as often as you can.
Wearing gloves can also be useful when you're in a public place, such as a grocery store or on mass transit. You're not likely going to be able to sanitize these locations before you enter, so you have to trust whoever operates them. Wear gloves for as long as it takes to complete your task, then remove them properly and wash your hands.
Seeing a pattern? Gloves aren't a bad thing, but they're not meant to be worn throughout your day to day life. Wear them for a task, complete that task, and discard them. You'll be safer that way.