Why Using Hand Gloves Can Be More Dangerous Than Protective
Dr Harun Ibrahim
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO), amongst other leading authorities, has recommended some safety precautionary measures to the public in order to break the chain of infection. Breaking this chain is integral to the fight against the invisible universal enemy, and the general public, not only scientists and healthcare workers, are the key players in this fight. This underscores the importance of having an enlightened public on the prevention and control based upon evidence from scientific research. Apart from the restrictions on movement and mass gathering imposed by our local governments aimed at mitigating the spread of the infection, proper hygienic measures are some of the potent tools in our own possession to use in combating this common enemy.
However, some people tend to employ extra “self-protective measures” that only provides them with a false sense of security whilst jeopardising those around them and aiding the spread of the infection. One of these measures is the public usage of hand gloves as a protective means against COVID-19.
While frontline healthcare workers are required and trained to use personal protective equipment (face shield, facemask, hand-gloves etc) to prevent cross infection, these measures are quite specific for the healthcare setting and using them in non-hospital casual settings achieves the exact opposite aim. It spreads infections. The World Health Organisation (WHO) does not recommend using gloves as a means of protection against COVID-19 by the public (1) for some obvious reasons which Dr Liz Kingston from the University of Limerick outlined (2):
Little evidence that gloves are protective against COVID-19: rubber gloves are not meant to be used casually and could tear easily. These pinhole tears compromise the integrity of the gloves, thereby placing the person at risk, unknowingly to them. As we already know, COVID-19 is mainly transmitted through respiratory droplets (cough, sneeze or speech of infected person) and also contaminated objects.
Dependence on gloves is unhygienic: as people often use disposable gloves for extended periods of time, it tends to give a false impression that hands need not be washed frequently. Proper hand hygiene is key in combating infection (3).
The risk for cross contamination: with gloves on for hours, hands are not washed and these gloves will easily get contaminated and continue sowing the virus on different surfaces.
Contamination of oneself: hands easily become contaminated when taking off gloves and the glove-wearer may not see the need to wash their hands since they’ve been (falsely) protected all day. The WHO and CDC have clearly outlined specific protocols for donning and doffing of protective equipment to prevent contamination (4).
Careless disposal after use: as we are not required to use gloves, so we may not understand how to properly dispose of one. Careless disposal of used gloves may also spread infection.
Chances of touching one’s face: everybody touches their faces, and it is a difficult habit to break, said Dr. Nancy C. Elder whose research showed people touch their faces upto 20 times per hour(3). This simply means with your gloves one for a straight hour, the chances of touching ones’ face (reflexly) and sowing the virus are very high. As people easily get infected through touching their mouth, nose or eyes, frequent and proper hand washing or using sanitisers will be more preventive than wearing gloves.
We can now understand why casual usage of hand-gloves in the public poses more risk than the presumed preventive benefit and does not in any way replace the need for proper and frequent hand hygiene. The WHO places frequent hand hygiene with alcohol based rub or washing with soap and water on the list of most effective preventive measures in the community, seconded by avoidance of touching the face (5). These, coupled with good respiratory hygiene (coughing and/or sneezing into a closed elbow or tissue paper) and proper social distancing of at least 1-meter are encouraged by the WHO. Medical masks should be used when having respiratory symptoms and must be discarded appropriately, followed by proper hand hygiene.
As the world is facing a shortage in supply of protective equipment to healthcare workers, the WHO has advised further against their usage by the public and calls for rationalised and appropriate usage even within healthcare facilities (5).
(1) World Health Organisation, 2020. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public [online]. Available at <https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public> [Accessed on 19th April, 2020]
(2) RTE, 2020. Why using gloves in public is 'largely futile' against the virus, Dr Liz Kingston [online]. Available at <https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2020/0402/1128061-coronavirus-gloves/> [Accessed on 19th April, 2020]
(3) Elder NC, 2014. Hand hygiene and face touching in family medicine offices: a Cincinnati Area Research and Improvement Group (CARInG) network study. The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine [online]. Available at <https://www.jabfm.org/content/27/3/339.long> [Accessed on 19th April, 2020]
(4) World Health Organisation, 2009. Glove Use Information Leaflet [online]. Available at <https://www.who.int/gpsc/5may/Glove_Use_Information_Leaflet.pdf> [Accessed on 19th April, 2020]
(5) World Health Organisation, 2020. Rational use of personal protective equipment for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) interim guidance [online]. Available at <https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/331215/WHO-2019-nCov-IPCPPE_use-2020.1-eng.pdf> [Accessed on 19th April, 2020]