Everyone in the glove industry knows that disposable gloves and hand irritation literally go hand in hand. What is not such common knowledge, however, is that not all hand irritation comes from the usual suspect - natural rubber latex. In fact, wearers of latex, nitrile and vinyl gloves are all susceptible to skin irritation, allergies or dermatitis.

Medically speaking, an irritant can result in a painful reaction or inflammation. For those who wear disposable gloves, such reactions most often appear where the gloves contact the hands. However, reactions are not always limited to the hands and can result in systemic responses that may affect the entire body.

Glove reactions

There are three primary types of reactions to disposable gloves: Type I and Type IV allergic reactions and irritant contact dermatitis.

A Type I allergic reaction is typically a response to contact with natural rubber latex. This is a systemic and widespread allergic reaction in someone who has a genetic predisposition to the allergen. This is the most severe type of reaction and can happen in a matter of minutes from initial contact. Symptoms include rash, watery eyes, runny nose, swelling, cramps, nausea, sneezing, wheezing, difficulty breathing and even anaphylactic shock. These symptoms are similar to those in individuals who suffer from a Type I allergic reaction to certain foods.

A Type IV allergic reaction is also known as allergic contact dermatitis. With this type of reaction, the person also has a genetic predisposition to the allergen, but it is limited to the area of contact. Therefore, the reaction will usually be confined to the hands. However, if the person touches the allergen to his face or other parts of the body, the reaction may appear there as well. Symptoms of Type IV allergic reactions include rash, swelling, itching, scaling of the skin and blisters. Poison ivy causes a Type IV reaction.

Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common cause of skin irritation in those who wear disposable gloves. This type of reaction is caused by a chemical irritant, such as soaps, hand sanitizers, detergents and disinfectants. It can also be caused by chemicals used in the manufacture of disposable gloves, including accelerator chemicals. Symptoms of irritant contact dermatitis include itching, burning, dryness, and blisters and can occur almost immediately or several hours after initial contact.  

Reduce the risk

Many disposable glove manufacturers are working to produce gloves that are less likely to cause allergic reactions and dermatitis. Such manufacturing modifications include efforts to produce low-protein latex gloves, double centrifugation, washing and chlorination. More recently, a few glove manufacturers have begun to produce accelerator-free gloves. Accelerators are chemicals that are used in the production process to speed up or accelerate material coagulation. Accelerators are used in the production of vulcanized rubber products, including natural rubber latex, nitrile and polychloroprene. These chemicals can cause Type IV allergic reactions or irritant contact dermatitis in some individuals.

As an employer of those using disposable hand protection, you too are able to take steps to safeguard against the risks of exposure to latex proteins and chemical accelerators. Discontinuing the use of natural rubber latex gloves, especially those that are powdered (or any powdered glove material, for that matter), is a good first step. Natural rubber latex is the primary cause of Type I allergic reactions in glove wearers, and there are additional risks associated with the proteins in cornstarch, used in powdered gloves.

If latex is necessary, look for gloves with a low protein content. This is usually associated with exam-grade latex gloves, which may possess a lowprotein claim that is recognized by the FDA. This claim means that testing has indicated that the gloves contain 50 micrograms or less of water extractable protein per glove (or 50 micrograms of protein/dm2). However, there are hundreds of latex proteins and only a handful is actually known to cause allergies, so a low-protein glove could potentially still contain allergy-causing proteins. A new test was recently developed to determine the content of the four principal allergenic proteins in gloves, but it is not yet recognized by the FDA.

Nitrile gloves do not aggravate Type I allergies, so this material may be a good alternative to natural rubber latex. In the past, the price difference between nitrile and latex was quite significant, but increased production of nitrile raw materials has helped to bring the cost of this polymer and latex nearly to parity. Keep in mind that nitrile gloves do carry the risk of causing Type IV allergies or irritant contact dermatitis due to the shared presence of accelerator chemicals. Look for a nitrile glove that is accelerator free. Better yet, look for a glove that carries a claim of “low dermatitis potential” as recognized by the FDA

Make sure the glove fits. “One size fits all” is a misnomer. Disposable gloves that do not fit properly can increase the chances of a reaction from irritant contact dermatitis. A glove that is too loose will move freely on the hand, causing friction and allowing particles to enter. A glove that is too tight will increase hand fatigue and can result in excessive hand sweating. Vinyl may be an option for those with allergies or dermatitis, but this too can contain chemicals that may cause irritation in some wearers.

Allergies and dermatitis tend to come with the territory in the disposable glove industry, but with planning, risk management and prompt attention to hand irritation, most severe problems can be avoided. Take the time to protect your employees by educating them about the risks associated with exposure to proteins and chemicals found in the products they wear.