- Gloves are not a perfect form of protection for those hoping to avoid germs in public places.
- You shouldn't wear gloves unless they remind you to avoid touching your face, doctors say.
- Take extra care to avoid cross-contamination by following the CDC's step-by-step guide to removing your gloves.
As more information about the coronavirus pandemic develops, some of the information in this story may have changed since it was last updated. For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit the online resources provided by the CDC, and the World Health Organization. You can work to better protect yourself from COVID-19 by washing your hands, avoiding contact with sick individuals, and sanitizing your home, among other actions.
As cases of the novel coronavirus surpassed 350,000 in the United States this week, Americans are receiving new tips and advice about avoiding exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that can cause COVID-19. One new piece of advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pushes Americans to wear cloth face coverings when they make essential trips to grocery stores and pharmacies for the foreseeable future. But what about wearing gloves to cover your hands outside of your home — could this precaution be as effective, or even necessary?
It may come as a surprise, but doctors and other healthcare providers say wearing gloves won't give you an added layer of protection against the risk of coming into contact with germs. Most experts say a pair of gloves won't lower your risk of contracting COVID-19 mostly because wearing gloves provides a false sense of security that bare hands do not. Robert Amler, M.D., the vice president for government affairs at New York Medical College and a former CDC chief medical officer, explains that people often don't understand that a glove could transfer germs to any and all surfaces they touch (especially your face!). "The glove itself is only as good as not touching your face with the glove. So, you know, you can touch things with your hands," he says, adding that COVID-19 doesn't transmit through skin contact on your hand. "And as long as you've washed your hands or use hand sanitizer afterwards, you've accomplished the same thing."
There are so many factors that play into why gloves aren't as effective a protective measure as a cloth face covering could be, including how we pull them on and off, says Sandra Kesh, M.D., an infectious disease specialist who is the deputy medical director at Westmed Medical Group in New York's Tri-State region. You could accidentally tear a glove or remove them in a way that cancels out any of protection they provided in the first place — or, worst of all, you could mistake gloves for being carte blanche to touch anything you please.
"If you're wearing gloves while shopping but happen to itch your nose or rub your eyes, it defeats the purpose of wearing gloves," she says. "When wearing gloves, you should picture them being infected, or 'hot.' Anything they touch gets infected, so to speak."
Both experts agree that hand washing remains essential, regardless of whether or not you wear gloves when you head outside. "Whether you use the glove or your hand, you're going to contaminate the part that's touching something — it could be your fingers, or it could be the glove," Dr. Amler explains, adding this is especially true for winter gloves that you may wear more than once. "Either way, washing your hands is the most effective protective measure [against spreading germs], because we know soap has special properties that really breaks up the virus very effectively."
Should I wear gloves to the grocery store?
If gloves help to remind you to not touch your face while you are outside and away from a sink, Dr. Kesh says you should feel free to wear them. But wearing gloves to the supermarket isn't necessary if you do not touch your face, remember social distancing best practices while in the store, and wash your hands immediately when you return home. In fact, Dr. Kesh says many people forget that the gloves they wear (especially woven options) can act as a "vehicle" for germs to travel elsewhere — onto your wallet, your phone, your car's steering wheel.
If you want to wear gloves, the most effective way to prevent germs from spreading would be to bring hand sanitizer with you, and dispose of the gloves as soon as you step out of the store. "Ideally, wear the gloves until you can wash your hands, and no longer need to use them. You should consider your hands dirty until then, however," Dr. Kesh explains, adding that your hands are not "clean" even though you've used gloves. "In the process of removing gloves, your hands actually become somewhat contaminated, which is why we always recommend hand washing after glove removal," he says.
Dr. Amler says it's safe to leave your gloves on if you are using public transport to get home, but Dr. Kesh adds that tossing your gloves and using hand sanitizer before you get into your own car is the best case scenario. You should continue to disinfect all surfaces you normally touch — including your phone, as well as the interior of your car — as routinely as possible.
How can I properly take gloves off?
Like many experts, Dr. Amler says he has issues with recommending gloves because people tend to absentmindedly expose their hands to the exterior of their gloves when they try to remove them; and then assume their hands are still clean (and possibly skip washing their hands!). You should always wash your hands immediately after removing your gloves, and if you don't have access to a sink, hand sanitizer can help reduce risk of spreading germs until you reach one.
Officials at the CDC have published an illustrated guide to removing gloves properly, which is available here. Here's how you can properly remove your gloves while minimizing exposure to viruses and bacteria on their surface:
- Pinch the outside of your first glove at the wrist, being sure not to touch your bare skin.
- Peel the glove away from your hand, pulling it inside out as you do so. Use care not to rip it in the process.
- Hold the now-removed glove in your other gloved hand. Do not hold it with your free hand.
- Peel off the other glove by inserting your fingers inside the glove under your wristband, taking care not to touch the exterior of your glove.
- Turn the glove inside out while pulling it away from your body, leaving the first glove within the second one. Then immediately dispose of these gloves in the trash.
Can you sanitize disposable gloves?
Just like other forms of medical-grade personal protective equipment, Dr. Kesh says that gloves are hard to come by right now: But both experts say that single-use latex or rubber options are best to avoid any cross-contamination, as they can be disposed of. If you only have access to one pair of disposable latex gloves, Dr. Kesh says you can wash them by submerging them in soapy water — but Dr. Amler warns that the solvents within some soaps or sanitizers may "interfere with the glove's material" and render them ineffective.
What about wool or woven gloves? Just like cloth-based face coverings, doctors say they need to be washed after every single use for best results. You'll need to put them through the wash cycle or scrub them thoroughly with soap and water in between uses, plus take all the same precautions you would with disposable gloves as well.
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