Wearing Gloves to Protect Yourself from COVID-19 May Do More Harm Than Good
As the coronavirus pandemic progressed rapidly, so too did safety guidelines. At first, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended against the general public wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19. Now, face masks are everywhere (and there are plenty of cute options to choose from).
While the initial no-face-masks recommendation was largely influenced by a shortage of medical face masks, the CDC did eventually recognize that fabric masks and coverings help prevent the spread of respiratory droplets — the primary way COVID-19 spreads. That’s part of the reason why they switched gears in early April, asking people to wear cloth face coverings, particularly in crowded areas like public transit, grocery stores, and outdoor markets.
When it comes to gloves, there's been also been back and forth. While the CDC doesn’t currently recommend wearing gloves as a protective layer when out in public, it’s understandable that some people are doing so. At one point, the CDC did recommend gloves, notes John Whyte, M.D., a board-certified internist and Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. “As a result, there’s been some confusion.” So if you’ve seen your grocery store parking lot strewn with latex gloves and wondered, “Should I be wearing those too?!” — you’re not alone.
There may also be a psychological component to their popularity. “Gloves can give people a sense of control as they try to protect themselves against an invisible pathogen,” says Allison Weinmann, M.D., MBBS, FRACP, an infectious disease specialist at Henry Ford Health System. Dr. Weinmann also notes that many people are feeling powerless and scared right now, and wearing gloves might make them feel like they’re doing something proactive.
But do gloves protect you from COVID-19?
“There is no evidence that gloves can protect us from acquiring COVID-19,” says Stephen Berger, M.D, a board certified infectious disease and microbiology physician, and founder of GIDEON, the Global Infectious Disease and Epidemiology Online Network. “The modern version of surgical gloves was invented to prevent healthcare workers from passing infection to the patient,” he adds. So gloves are probably more effective at preventing you from passing the virus to others than they are at protecting you from it — similar to fabric face masks.
There’s also the fact that COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets, not skin. “Droplets are generated by talking, singing, coughing, and sneezing,” Dr. Weinmann explains. “This is why social distancing works — less exposure to others’ droplets.” Of course, the virus can be transferred from your hands to your eyes, nose, and mouth, which is why public health officials are constantly reminding us to stop touching our faces.
Thing is, you can still transfer COVID-19 to your face if you’re wearing gloves. And that may happen more often than you’d think, for a specific reason: “Wearing gloves can provide a false sense of protection,” Dr. Whyte says. “You might actually touch contaminated surfaces with the gloves and then touch your eyes and face, and probably your phone. Touching your face and your phone with dirty gloves defeats the whole purpose.”
Some may even stop practicing social distancing because they feel protected by wearing gloves. “I’m also concerned people wear gloves and then go out and stay out much longer than they otherwise would have without them,” Dr. Whyte adds.
So should you wear gloves, or not?
For the reasons above, experts agree: Gloves are not necessary at this point if you’re a member of the general public.
Of course, if you’re an essential worker who is required to wear gloves on the job, that’s a different story. For example, grocery store workers may prefer to wear gloves to avoid getting dry, cracked hands from frequent hand sanitizing after each customer, says Debbie Goff, PharmD, an infectious disease expert at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
But for most people, practicing good hand hygiene is the gold standard. “I understand if people want to wear gloves,” Dr. Weinmann says. “But gloves never replace hand hygiene.” Plus, even if you’re wearing gloves, you should still wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before putting them on and after taking them off, she notes.
What’s more, there may be logistical problems with wearing gloves. “As summer time starts, gloves are just too hot to wear,” Goff says. (If you’ve ever tried to put gloves on with sweaty hands, you know what she’s talking about.)
If you’re going to wear gloves, here’s how to do it properly:
Gloves only offer their limited protection if you know how to remove them properly, a process known in healthcare as “doffing.” The fact that most people don’t know how to remove gloves properly is one of the reasons they’re not recommended for the general public, Goff says.
If you decide to wear gloves, here's how to do so safely:
1. Opt for disposable latex gloves. “Gloves made of cotton or other fabric will not offer additional protection, and might themselves become soaked with contaminating material,” Dr. Berger explains.
2. Wait until the last possible moment to put gloves on before going out. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol beforehand.
3. Minimize touching your face while wearing gloves.
4. To remove, follow the CDC’s step-by-step recommendations for safe removal. And as for whether you can reuse disposable gloves, the answer is a definitive no.
5. Dispose of gloves in a trash can. Again, reusing gloves is a big no-no — so it's important they go straight into the trash. “Gloves are increasingly seen scattered about, littering parking lots,” Dr. Weinmann says. “If you choose to wear gloves, please dispose of them thoughtfully.”
6. Immediately your hands or use hand sanitizer again before touching anything else. And sanitize any objects you touched which gloved hands, such as your phone, keys, or wallet.
The bottom line on wearing disposable gloves
If the process above sounds a bit too laborious to be worth it, experts would agree.
Their takeaway? “The reality is that most of us don’t need gloves to prevent the spread of the virus,” Dr. Whyte says. “Washing your hands and using hand sanitizer is much better than wearing gloves.”
And if you want to protect yourself from COVID-19, Goff recommends staying vigilant with proven methods of protection as society returns to the “new normal.”
“COVID-19 is still highly contagious. Maintain frequent hand hygiene and social distancing, wipe down high touch areas in your home at the start of the day, and respect others by wearing a mask when out in public places.”
The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.