There is a wide variety of different kinds of gloves you can wear to protect your hands from contamination, but by far the most common are latex and nitrile. Both of these kinds of gloves are thin, easy to wear, and disposable. You don't have to worry about cleaning them in general, but if you're out and about, and you don't have replacements on you, you might consider it.
The go-to tool for sanitizing hands is hand sanitizer, at least when you can't access soap and water. The question is, will hand sanitizer work to sanitize latex or nitrile gloves?
Possible Concerns with Sanitizing Gloves
There are a handful of concerns that might crop up with using something like hand sanitizer to clean your gloves.
The first, of course, is "will this degrade the gloves"? We've all seen examples of cases where using a chemical on a substance will degrade and dissolve that substance.
Fortunately, your gloves are likely to be fine with exposure to hand sanitizer. Latex and nitrile gloves are resistant to a number of different chemicals, and while some can penetrate and degrade them, alcohol is not one of them.
The active ingredient in hand sanitizer is usually ethyl alcohol or ethanol. This grain alcohol is safe for human consumption, which is why it's typically used on hands, which then touch things like food as you eat. It's also safer – though not safe – in the instance where someone accidentally consumes the sanitizer.
The other common alcohol used in sanitizing products (typically wipes and sprays) is isopropyl alcohol. This is not safe-to-consume alcohol, but it isn't necessarily dangerous to your gloves either.
There are two proofs of this. The first is that healthcare workers are often using alcohol to disinfect surfaces. Gloves have no problem with that alcohol exposure. You can also consider that these gloves are recommended when dealing with household cleaners that are harsh on the hands. The second is more scientific; this study, performed on a variety of different gloves, shows that even repeated exposure to alcohol-based sanitizing does not degrade the quality of the gloves.
The second concern you might have is that the gloves might not actually be sanitized. After all, if you're using hand sanitizer, you want it to actually kill the microbes and viruses that contaminate the surface of your hands or gloves.
The same study linked above also tested the microbial load on the gloves, before and after sanitizing them with an alcohol-based solution. What they found is that using a suitably high concentration of alcohol in their solution was enough to sanitize the gloves, at least for the first dozen cleansings. After about 9-10 cleanings, the gloves started to retain some level of microorganisms. What this means is that, over time, your ability to clean your gloves will decrease.
Another concern you may have is properly fitting your gloves. Gloves are often sold in very vague sizes, or in a tight, one-size-fits-all style. The trouble here is that you may have gloves that are not tight enough, leaving gaps around the wrists that can accumulate contamination. Alternatively, gloves may be too tight and can be uncomfortable to wear. Gloves that are improperly sized may also have creases and wrinkles in them, where contamination can hide from all but the most thorough passes with hand sanitizer.
Properly Sanitizing Gloves
You know those guides that are being passed around right now, about how to properly wash your hands? Wearing gloves does not make those guides any less important.
This video is an excellent example. By using something visible on white gloves – black paint – they showcase how using the proper technique is necessary to get full coverage of the surface of your hands or gloves.
Just like with washing your hands, you need to spend an adequate amount of time using hand sanitizer to ensure that it is thoroughly rubbed into your skin (or gloves surface) to make sure all of the various microorganisms on the surface are killed.
Make sure you use enough sanitizer to fully cover the surfaces of your gloves when you sanitize, and make sure to spend the proper amount of time rubbing it in. The alcohol will evaporate once it has done its job, so your gloves should not end up sticky or remain slick.
Use Gloves Properly
In times where contamination is a concern, gloves are a common choice, but they can only do so much.
One consideration is your hands themselves. You may want to make sure you're trimming your fingernails before wearing gloves. Long, sharp nails are a deep crevasse where contamination can build if you're not wearing gloves, but those nails can cause the gloves to stretch or perforate. Tearing your gloves removes any benefit they may have.
Gloves primarily serve as a reminder to avoid touching your face. The risk of environmental contamination is not touching it with your hands, it is in having contamination on your hands and then touching your face.
The exception here is if your hands have cuts, scrapes, or cracked and dry skin. When the barrier of the skin is broken, that's a place where microbes can penetrate and start doing their work.
Using gloves can be a reminder not to touch your face, but you need to be careful anyway. You can't "cheat" and assume the gloves will protect you. Gloves protect your hands, but they don't protect other surfaces.
Likewise, gloves do not eliminate the need to sanitize your surroundings. If you wear gloves when you leave the house, you need to sanitize anything you touch with the gloves on.
You should also avoid re-using gloves whenever possible. Latex and nitrile gloves are designed to be used for a short amount of time and discarded, replace with other gloves later when another task necessitates their use. While they can be reused, you need to fully sanitize them inside and out, which is not usually easy at home.
When using gloves, practice as much hygiene as you normally would (or more) without them. Sanitize after touching potentially contaminated surfaces, avoid touching your face and other surfaces if it's not necessary, and wash your hands when you remove them.
You also should learn how to remove gloves properly. One potential source of contamination is the "snapback" effect of pulling gloves off and letting them snap. Snapping gloves can fling droplets of sweat, moisture, and microbes onto far-off surfaces or even back at your face.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have an easy guide on how to remove gloves properly. It was initially prepared as part of the Ebola outbreak, but the advice remains the same. You can find that guide in PDF form here.
When to Wear Gloves
If you're considering wearing gloves due to the current global crisis, you should keep in mind the proper time to use them.
You very likely do not need to wear gloves in your own home, performing your normal daily tasks. If you live with people who are likely to be exposed, however, it may be worthwhile to help protect yourself, especially if you have issues with your immune system.
At home, sanitizing commonly touched surfaces is generally the better choice. Gloves don't actually stop contamination from spreading, they just give you a false sense of security. Use cleaning supplies with alcohol or soap to sanitize surfaces like counters, tables, and doorknobs. Use other cleaning supplies for devices like your phone and keyboard for your computer.
If you need to leave your home, you likewise probably don't need to wear gloves in your car, but if you take public transportation, it can be a good idea to protect you from surfaces on that transportation.
Putting on gloves should be focused on the task you want to complete. For example, you can put on gloves when you shop, and then remove them when you return to your vehicle. This way contamination is limited to the products you buy, which can be sanitized upon your return home.
If you're only spending a few minutes wearing gloves, you typically won't need to clean them with hand sanitizer, soap, and water, or any other cleaning supplies. If you're going to be out and about shopping or running tasks for more than an hour, sanitizing gloves occasionally can be a good idea. It's a better idea to replace the gloves if you can, but it's understandable that you might not be able to.
If you're in a position where you're an essential worker and plan to wear gloves to protect yourself from the people you interact with, keep in mind that they aren't necessarily going to protect you from much. The current problems we face with contamination are more focused on airborne droplet spread. Touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your face is a bad thing, of course, but being coughed on is worse.
In these cases, wearing gloves still spreads contamination around the areas you work in. Sanitizing as regularly as you would if you were not wearing gloves is just as important to prevent the spread of disease.
The Real Benefits of Wearing Gloves
The way we see it, there are three main benefits of wearing gloves.
The first, as we've mentioned above, is that they serve as a reminder to avoid touching your face. Wearing gloves means having a constant reminder that there is something on your hands (and that something can be more than just the gloves). It also hides your nails, which makes it more difficult to scratch itches and other reasons you might touch your face. The surface of a pair of latex or nitrile gloves is likely to be ineffective and slightly unpleasant to most people as well, so it's even more reason to avoid touching your face and potentially spreading more contamination.
The second is that they help provide protection for sensitive skin. For example, dry skin, cracked skin, cuts or abrasions on your hands, or other symptoms that could allow a disease to penetrate the skin. Any break in the skin is a possible route for contamination to enter the body, and that includes both natural breaks like your eyes and mouth, as well as unnatural breaks like cuts. Even something like a papercut on a finger, improperly protected, can be a vector for infection. Under normal circumstances, your immune system would fight off any viral intruders easily, but with novel viruses like what the world is facing down right now, you don't have an immune response to it yet.
The third is that the gloves protect your hands from the drying effects of soap and alcohol. One of the problems healthcare workers and others who deal with ongoing contamination face is the fact that most means of cleaning your skin also damage it.
What happens is that alcohol and soap both strip the natural oils from your skin while they remove contaminations, grime, dirt, and various microbes. Leaving your skin without this protective moisturizing coat means it is more exposed to the elements, and the outer layers of skin dry out, die, and flake. This can lead to dry skin, cracks around the nails, and unpleasant soreness.
The general solution to this is to follow up on your handwashing with a moisturizing lotion. Gloves, meanwhile, can help minimize the number of times you need to cleanse your hands, reducing the natural oils that are stripped and helping your skin stay healthier for longer.
So, yes, you can wear gloves for good reasons, and yes, you can use hand sanitizer on those gloves with no other complications. Just make sure you aren't thinking they'll protect you more than they actually will.