Disposable Gloves

Friday 29th April 2022

Disposable gloves form a critical barrier against the transmission of viral and bacterial infections, as well as protecting against chemicals. They are extensively used in every healthcare, personal care and cleaning environment, and come in a number of different materials with a range of performance standards and costs.

Disposable gloves are an aid to performing tasks safely, and have the advantage of being immediately disposable without any need for washing and preparing for re-use. Disposability allows care staff to get on with their main duties without any delays.

Mass production in natural and synthetic materials makes disposable gloves affordable, and easy-to-use dispensers allow staff to pull out gloves quickly and efficiently. Clear waste procedures make the disposal of used gloves equally straightforward.

What are the types of disposable gloves?

The main types of disposable gloves are latex, vinyl (PVC) and nitrile. All are easy to wear and give important levels of protection, but each have different properties which make them more or less suitable in different situations.

What are latex gloves?

Latex gloves are also commonly known as rubber gloves, and are based on either natural or synthetic materials. Latex gloves are widely used because they are:
• very elastic
• easy to fit comfortably on any shape or size of hand
• strong enough to resist tears
• resistant to punctures
• waterproof
• an effective protection against bacteria and viruses, as well as against cleaning liquids and many chemicals

Where natural latex, tapped from rubber trees, is used, it is combined with various chemicals to give it more stretch, to make it stronger, and to give it a longer life. Synthetic latex is made using manufacturers’ formulations to achieve a similar level of performance.

Latex gloves are a leading choice for anyone working in surgery, general healthcare, care homes and dentistry. They are also very widely used in cleaning, laboratory work and in any other role involving exposure to chemicals and cleaning fluids.

What are latex allergies?

Latex allergies are triggered by the proteins in natural latex. Allergic reactions may be restricted to sneezing or itching, but can cause much more severe anaphylactic reactions. Using powders with gloves to make them easier to put on or take off can cause the release of latex proteins, further increasing the chance of allergic reactions. Low protein latex is an accepted standard in the manufacture of latex gloves, and can reduce the risk of allergic reactions. See HSE guidelines on choosing latex gloves.

Nitrile gloves

Nitrile gloves are made from a synthetic rubber-like material without any latex component, so they cannot result in a latex allergic reaction. They are durable, puncture resistant and highly impermeable, and offer high levels of protection against infection. They are also unaffected by exposure to a large variety of chemicals.

Nitrile is very flexible and gives wearers a clear sense of touch. The material can be made to different specifications of elasticity, allowing for variable degrees of comfort and performance. As a result, nitrile gloves are a highly practical choice for medical and care environments, as well as for handling chemicals and corrosive solutions.

Vinyl gloves

Vinyl gloves are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They are light and flexible, and offer protection from infection, and allow a clear sense of touch. They are also the lowest cost disposable gloves.

Their core characteristics make them a popular choice for medical and care staff, as well as for general use in industry, for food preparation and at self-service petrol forecourts. Unlike latex and nitrile, vinyl is not elastic and its barrier properties are compromised when the gloves are stretched, becoming porous enough to rule them out for rigorous medical use.

When were disposable gloves invented?

The background to disposable gloves goes back to the 1870s. At that time, surgery resulted in death in some 50% of operations. The need for better hygiene was recognised by surgeon Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery, who introduced the practise of sterilising surgical instruments with carbolic acid, and of spaying a fine mist of carbolic acid around operating theatres. With these measures in place, the mortality rate for Lister’s surgery patients dropped dramatically to 15%.

Frequent use of antiseptics did, however, result in skin damage to the hands of nurses administering it. Surgeon William Halstead Stewart, one of the founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, asked a favour of the Goodyear Rubber Company to produce thin rubber gloves as a test to protect his chief nurse (and lover) Caroline Hampton. They were so successful that further orders were placed, and the use of rubber gloves in surgery became widely adopted. Initially the gloves were used to protect the hands of medical staff, but by 1894 Lister had introduced the practice of sterilising the gloves to prevent the spread of infection to patients.

The development of disposable rubber gloves was not complete until 1964. The gloves were sterilised by gamma radiation, and then disposed of after use. To make putting gloves on and taking them off as easy as possible, talcum powder was introduced, but has, in fact, been banned since 2016 because of its links to post-operative scars and inflammation.

Another issue which has emerged in recent years is the increasing frequency of latex allergies. The result is that alternatives to rubber gloves are now in common use, made of materials such as nitrile and vinyl.

Quality ratings for disposable gloves

AQL (Acceptable Quality Level) is an evaluation of the quality of a finished glove. Ratings are based on an international industry standard sampling process which assesses quality by measuring defects in a random selection of gloves. For medical examinations, procedures or surgery, all gloves must have an AQL rating of 1.5 or higher.

Other European regulations apply on:
• Checks on holes and leaks to ensure gloves are an effective barrier against micro-organisms (EN455-1)
• Physical strength needed to break the material (EN455-2)
• Potentially hazardous materials in the gloves, including bacteria, rubber proteins, chemical residues and presence of powders in powder-free gloves (EN455-3)
• Shelf life in warehouses and storerooms, to a maximum of 5 years (EN455-4)
• How permeable the gloves are to water, chemicals and microorganisms (EN374)

Under EU law, disposable gloves need to be marked CE, and in the UK the UKCA mark now needs to be used, although there is a transition period which allows the use of the CE mark until the end of June 2023.

Disposable gloves FAQs

What kind of disposable gloves are best?

The best disposable gloves are the gloves best suited to the purposes they are needed for. Vinyl gloves, for example, are low cost, easy to put on and offer plenty of protection in less challenging environments. For tasks which are not too long and don’t place significant stress on the gloves, they are perfect. If more durable gloves are needed, with less propensity to tear and puncture, and with very high levels of resistance to water and contaminated liquids, latex and nitrile are a better choice. If any users or patients are allergic to natural latex, synthetic latex or nitrile gloves need to be used.

What are disposable gloves used for?

Disposable gloves are used in almost all types of healthcare. They are essential equipment for most hospital departments, and also in doctor’s surgeries, dental practices and care homes. Any treatment, investigation or care that requires protection from infection for both patients and staff is likely to need disposable gloves.

Outside of the health sector, disposable gloves are also important for a multitude of other uses including:
• food preparation to prevent the transmission of bacteria and viruses
• laboratory work to protect technicians from corrosive substances
• car mechanics to protect from oils, grease and chemicals
• industries where handling chemicals and caustic substances is involved
• domestic and industrial cleaning for protection from cleaning fluids and creams
• childcare for dealing with first aid, illness and body waste

How often should you change your disposable gloves?

As a rule of thumb, the maximum length of time to wear the same pair of disposable gloves should be no more than 4 hours. After that time your skin needs air, and the structure of the gloves’ material is at risk of degrading, with possible increased permeability and reduced strength. The correct use of disposable gloves is for a single task, so they should be disposed of as soon as a particular job is done. Once removed you should not put disposable gloves back on, because they are likely to be contaminated and the stretching will have made them more porous and less robust.

How do you put on disposable gloves?

Disposable gloves can be torn by sharp-edged jewellery, and bulky items can make putting gloves on difficult, so it is better to remove all rings and bracelets. Wash and dry your hands thoroughly to avoid transmission of germs to the gloves while you handle them. Try to avoid touching the outside of the glove by pulling it on by gripping the inside of the cuff, and pull until it fits properly over the end of your fingers. Repeat for the second glove.

How do you take off disposable gloves?

The aim is to take off your gloves without touching your skin with the outside of either glove. Grip the outside of the cuff of the first glove and peel it back over your hand so that it is inside out. You can use your clean hand to repeat the process for the other glove.

How do you dispose of disposable gloves?

Once used disposable gloves should be placed immediately in rubbish bins or other lidded receptacles to void cross contamination. In hospitals and other medical environments, they should be treated as clinical waste. Once used, disposable gloves are not recyclable, but in the case of latex and nitrile they are biodegradable so will break down in landfill. Latex biodegrades significantly faster than nitrile.

What is modulus?

The measure of a gloves resistance to stretch is known as modulus. The amount of pull required to stretch the material is measured in megapascals (MPa). Gloves with a lower modulus feel softer and comfortable to wear, and is easier to stretch and flex. A high modulus glove is harder to move and stretch, and can be more tiring for the hand.

See the full range of disposable gloves from Medirite

Sign up for our newsletter

We only use your email address to add you to our mailing list for receiving our newsletters(monthly). This information is only kept in our mailing list and not for any other purposes than for contacting you with our newsletters.

Thank you for subscribing to the Medirite mailing list.