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Disposable gloves may feel safe — but don't be deceived

April 14, 2020

Disposable gloves do not really protect against the new coronavirus. In fact, they can even increase the risk of an infection for several reasons.

A customer of a supermarket pushes her shopping trolley protected by disposable gloves
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Weihrauch

In supermarkets, at the weekly market, in everyday life: People are being seen more and more often wearing not only face masks but also disposable gloves to protect themselves from the highly infectious coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. In many drugstores around the world, they have been sold out for weeks.

Using disposable gloves could seem an obvious way to help avoid catching the disease. After all, infection with the coronavirus can occur not only via a droplet infection, i.e. when someone coughs or sneezes in your proximity, but also via a smear infection. In the latter case, if you touch something on which pathogens are present, they get onto your hand. And if you then touch your hand to your face, eyes, nose or mouth, the viruses can enter your body and make you ill.

Porous material

Although disposable gloves are worn in doctors' surgeries and by paramedics, they protect the hands only from coarse contamination, such as blood or other bodily fluids. They can protect against contamination with bacteria and viruses only for a very short time.

This is because the material of disposable gloves is actually porous, and the longer you wear them, the easier it is for pathogens to penetrate the supposed protective cover. This is one of the reasons why medical personnel carefully clean and disinfect their hands after using disposable gloves. Disposable gloves expressly do not replace these hygiene rules.

Infografik: Proper hand hygiene

Deceptive protection

Disposable gloves made of vinyl, latex or nitrile may give a feeling of sterility, but this feeling of safety is very deceptive. Many people take better care not to touch their face when shopping with disposable gloves — but it can happen quite often all the same by accident.

Caution: Even if you reach for your cell phone or in your trouser pocket with disposable gloves, you can still spread the pathogens over a large area without noticing. And it is irrelevant to the virus whether it enters the body from a bare hand or a disposable glove via the face.

'Hygienic mess on a massive scale'

For these reasons, doctors warn urgently not just about this deceptive feeling of security but also point out that disposable gloves can even increase the risk of infection. This is because the skin starts to sweat very quickly under disposable gloves. And such a warm and humid climate is an ideal environment for bacteria and viruses of all kinds.

"Stop wearing medical gloves in public! It's a hygienic mess on a massive scale." That's how drastically Dr. Marc Hanefeld put it on Twitter and Facebook. "Under the glove, bacteria happily multiply in the warm, humid space. And after taking it off, without disinfection, you have a sewer on your hands. Congratulations!" says Hanefeld,  a medical doctor from Bremervörde in northern Germany.

The pulmonary physician and internist Dr. Jens Mathews has a similar view. In a radio interview with German public broadcaster SWR3, he described disposable gloves as a "germ-slinger" for the coronavirus. Not only do they offer no protection, he says, but they are even counterproductive. In a very short time, a disposable glove accumulates many more bacteria on the surface than a freshly washed hand would, according to Mathews.

A very vivid description was also shared on social media by the scientist Dr.Jacquelyn Gill, who explains how to use disposable gloves correctly and about the risks of incorrect use.

For years, Prof. Dr. Ojan Assadian, president of the Austrian Society for Hospital Hygiene (ÖGKH), has also been warning against the incorrect use of disposable gloves.

"I would not even recommend the wearing of disposable gloves in everyday life to medically untrained people. It requires a certain amount of know-how and practice to take off disposable gloves in such a way that any microorganisms adhering to them remain on them and glove wearers do not smear them onto their hands, wrists or the sleeves of their outer clothing when taking them off," explains the hygienist and infectious disease specialist in an interview with the specialist magazine pflegen-online.de.

Correct disposal

People who want to protect themselves and their fellow human beings from the coronavirus should therefore rather follow the now-familiar protective and hygienic measures and avoid disposable gloves. So: Wash your hands thoroughly with soap, keep your distance, stay at home …

Anyone who still wants to use disposable gloves should dispose of them properly afterward and not — as is unfortunately often observed at present — throw them away carelessly.

Thoughtlessly throwing away used disposable gloves or intentionally leaving them in shopping carts is negligent and antisocial. Germany's federal disease control and prevention agency, the Robert Koch Institute, recommends that they should be disposed of in the same way as face masks: in a closed bag in the non-recyclable waste bin.

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