Medical gloves are used in healthcare settings to reduce hand contamination, cross contamination, as well as to protect patients and doctors from germs. The gloves are almost always disposable, to guarantee a safe handling and unique use. They are made of rubbery materials or synthetic polymers such as latex, vinyl, neoprene or nitrile.
There are numerous variations in design, sizes and materials used. Also, medical gloves come in two variations, powdered with cornstarch, to ensure ease of use, or unpowdered. Initially, lycodpodium powder or talc was used instead of cornstarch, but during surgical procedures, unpowdered medical gloves are usually the norm, because of safety and hygiene issues. Also, cornstarch or other powders sometimes can impede or slow patient recovery. To simulate the effect of powder and ease the use of the glove, there are special manufacturing processes involved, such as dry pressing or special coating for the inside of the glove.
Medical gloves are divided in two categories, surgical gloves and exam gloves, with exam gloves being the more common. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gloves can reduce contamination by at least 70 to 80 percent, making them one of the most important elements during a proper medical procedure, whether it is a simple examination or a complex surgery. Nonetheless, medical gloves should be used only one time, by a single user, because the protection level can be drastically reduced after several hours of usage. Tears, breaks or cuts are some of the most common damages medical gloves are sensitive to. Medical gloves should be chosen according to the daily practices, procedure type, hand size, length of use, work style or personal habits.
Sterilized gloves for medical use were first used in 1890 by William Stewart Halsted while working at Johns Hopkins University. He was using carbolic acid to sterilize both his and his nurse’s hands. After realizing that she was sensitive to the chemical compound, he asked the Goodyear Tire Company to develop a rubber that could be sprayed with carbolic acid to ensure sanitization. However, the first modern disposable medical glove was only invented in 1964 by Ansell, using the technology used in making condoms. They were soon used in various applications, ranging from sanitary workers, to gardeners, as well as dentists and surgeons.
Currently, most medical gloves are made of latex, a rubbery stable dispersion of polymer microparticles. Latex can be found in nature, with an estimated 10 percent of all flowering plants exhibiting this fluid. It consists of proteins, starches, sugars, tannins and resins. Latex can be naturally synthetically obtained, through the polymerization of styrene, before being emulsified with surfactants.
However, latex can cause irritation and allergies to certain individuals, such as anaphylactic reactions or contact dermatitis. Extreme cases of latex allergies should be treated with utmost urgency, as it can be life threatening to certain individuals. Allergies can be caused by gloves, condoms or any other latex product which comes into contact with the skin. Rashes, skin blistering, oozing or itchy skin are common symptoms for allergic contact dermatitis caused by latex.
Because of this, in recent years, gloves made of various polymers are available, such as neoprene gloves or nitrile and vinyl gloves. These materials don’t cause allergies and are inert to most chemical compounds, making them safe for medical procedures. Natural rubber alternatives are also available, with Vytex natural rubber latex as a prime example. This new material was developed while trying to reduce the allergenic effects of the common latex. By reducing the antigenic protein found in Hevea latex, scientists have developed the natural rubber medical glove.
Even though non latex gloves are more present than ever, most of them are only exam gloves. Surgical gloves however, are still made almost exclusively out of latex, because of the fine grip, feel, mobility, sensitivity and comfort provided by the material. An exception to this are the high grade isoprene gloves, but they are extremely expensive and not widely available. Other high grade material gloves, such as nitrile gloves, are also considered too expensive for cost sensitive areas of work, such as hospitals and day care centers.