Everything you wanted to know about lab gloves (but were afraid to ask)

We think getting people into the lab is awesome. It’s THE place for discoveries, learning, and science! But it does require more protection than opening a textbook. Enter personal protective equipment or PPEs.

Gloves are part of the triumvirate of PPEs (gloves, lab coats, and eye protection). In many labs, they may be the most important PPE. PPE gloves protect your skin from a host of lab hazards and protect your experiments from contamination. The basics of wearing gloves are self-explanatory and, let’s admit it, pretty dry. However, once you start wearing these simple but powerful tools questions do arise. If you’ve ever found your gloved self wondering “now what do I do?” read on!

When should I take off my gloves? 

Photo by Castorly Stock on Pexels.com

A good rule of thumb is that if you are about to do a task that you regularly do outside the lab then remove your gloves. Writing in your lab book? Switching on and off the lights? Texting? Adjusting your glasses? All are good times to take off your gloves.

Shared equipment and especially lab computers can be a murkier area. Here it’s well worth the time investment to decide as a group or class which equipment will be gloves on and gloves off. Then grab the closest sharpie and lab tape and label things as “Gloves required” or “No gloves.”

Areas shared with people outside the lab like hallways and the doors leading to hallways are no glove zones. This is easier to say than do especially when an experiment takes you from one room to another. In these cases, try going 50%. Keep one glove on to carry your experiment and deglove the other hand to open doors etc.

When should I change gloves?

If you’re in the lab for a long stretch of time it’s still good practice to periodically change gloves. This limits the transfer of chemicals from one surface to another. In addition, some chemicals can eat away at your gloves over time so changing reduces the risk of tears.

Another key time to change gloves? If a liquid drenches them. Even the best gloves don’t give complete immunity and over time a liquid can soak through. So even if your hands don’t feel wet still take the gloves off and wash your hands as soon as possible.

Any other lab glove etiquette I should know? 

Most labs discourage double-using gloves even if you don’t feel like they’ve been contaminated. Many contaminants are difficult to see so this is a hard condition to judge. Moreover, putting on old gloves often requires blowing them up which brings the gloves way too close to your nose, mouth, and eyes.  

Is there a special way to take off lab gloves?

Yes! Especially if your lab gloves become contaminated with something you don’t want to touch. First, pinch the wrist of one glove and pull it off the hand. This should flip the glove inside out. With your bare hand reach inside the cuff of the other gloved and again pull/flip. Check out this video to see how. 

What gloves should I buy for the lab? 

Cyro gloves. Lilly_M, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Different labs and even different experiments pose different hazards. Luckily for every job, there’s a glove. Dealing with liquid nitrogen? Find the bulky cryo gloves usually in blue. Working with an open flame? Try a pair of Nomex gloves? Dealing with ketones and esters? Reach for a pair of Butyl gloves.

The two most common lab gloves are disposable latex and nitrile gloves. Both offer protection against water based chemicals and biological material as well as good mobility and a low cost per use. The difference? Latex gloves are made of natural rubber, are slightly more prone to tears and degradation, offer slightly more range of motion, and can be irritating to the skin and even eyes in some people. Nitrile gloves are made of synthetic rubber which is less of an irritant and more resistant to tears/degradation but also slightly less agile. But overall, both are great all-purpose lab gloves.  

How to store gloves?

Keep gloves away from direct sunlight, heat, and UV. Poor storage can weaken gloves and cause them to easily tear or become brittle. If you notice small holes or discoloration test the gloves beforehand by stretching them to see if they tear.

Why do people sometimes wear double-layer gloves?

Sometimes scientists will “double glove” i.e. put one glove on top of another glove. This is a way to increase protection and guard against perforation without compromising dexterity. It’s mostly used when working with dangerous chemicals or in a scenario where exposure would severely compromise an experiment AND when the experiment or procedure requires a wide range of fine movements.

Have another burning PPE question? Ask us! And if you’re looking for a way to introduce or reinvigorate lab safety to your classroom lab we highly recommend this music video

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