We scientists wear them all the time, but have you ever stopped to ask: what good are lab gloves? Why are there so many kinds? And what happens when you put one straight into liquid nitrogen?
Gloves protect your skin (and often the rest of you) from the numerous hazards lurking in labs, from toxic chemicals and hot glassware to toothy mice. To help you stay safe, we’ll review the many types of gloves, then give you some handy tips on double-gloving, working with liquid nitrogen, coping with latex allergies, and following glove etiquette.
So many gloves for so many hazards
Science has yet to give us the perfect glove that protects you against every hazard all the time. That puts the onus on scientists to figure out what glove best protects them for the task at hand – but don’t worry, you’re not alone! Talk with your Environmental Health & Safety office, check out this excellent reference chart for matching the right gloves to the right chemicals, and review your options below:
- Butyl gloves. These thick, re-usable gloves are made out of synthetic rubber, making them resistant to weathering and many chemicals like ketones and esters. However, their thickness makes them cumbersome, and they aren’t resistant to hydrocarbons like gasoline.
- Cryo-Gloves. These blue, insulated fabric gloves are made by Tempshield. While they protect you against frostbite from brief contact with super-cold materials, you shouldn’t immerse them directly into liquid nitrogen!
- Latex gloves. Made out of natural rubber, latex gloves are thin, flexible, and good for working with biological and water-based materials. But they don’t protect against most chemicals (especially organic solvents), and it’s difficult to notice when they’ve ripped. Even worse, they could be bad for your health (see Handy Tip 3 below)!
- Neoprene gloves. Made out of synthetic rubber, neoprene resists wear and many chemicals (but not some hydrocarbons). Because of their thickness, they’re recommended for handling caustic chemicals.
- Nitrile gloves. These disposable gloves are a good for brief contact with solvents, greases, and some acids and bases (although they don’t protect against chlorinated solvents or corrosive/oxidizing acids). Unlike latex, they don’t trigger allergies, and it’s easier to spot wear and tear.
- Nomex gloves. These thick, flame-resistant gloves are good for handling pyrophoric materials (but don’t stick them straight into a fire – they’re resistant, not invulnerable!).
- Polyvinyl alcohol gloves. This polymer is resistant to many organic solvents, but is vulnerable to water!
- Polyvinyl chloride gloves. Gloves made out of this polymer are good for resisting acids, bases, oils, peroxides, and amines, and also protect against abrasions. However, they’re not compatible with organic solvents – the plasticizers in the glove may even leach into the solvent!
- Viton gloves. These thick, reusable gloves are made by DuPont. While they’re great at resisting chlorinated and aromatic solvents, as well as protecting you from cuts and abrasions, they’re pretty expensive and not compatible with ketones.
Figure 1. The different types of gloves that are available. a) Butyl; b) cryo-gloves c) latex; d) neoprene; and e) nitrile.
Handy Tip 1: Double-gloving Is Helpful (but Imperfect)
While no glove protects you against everything, sometimes layering gloves over each other – double-gloving – helps protect you against more hazards. Double-gloving with two thinner, more flexible gloves may also be safer when you need fine dexterity near a hazard that normally requires a bulky glove, or when you want to quadruple the amount of time it takes a chemical to breakthrough a glove. Double-gloving is a good option, too, when you may need to remove an outer glove that’s become contaminated while still keeping your hands protected – this is how I protect myself when handling nanomaterials.
Handy Tip 2: Liquid Nitrogen Can Still Hurt You
Don’t ever immerse your hands (or any other body part) fully into liquid nitrogen, even if you’re wearing gloves! Cryogenic gloves protect you against incidental contact, such as the small splashes that would give you frostbite. Make sure your cryogenic gloves are loose-fitting, so if you do get splashed, you can yank those gloves off quickly before the liquid nitrogen freezes your skin. And don’t wear cotton or other absorbent gloves beneath the cryogenic gloves. Cotton will absorb the liquid nitrogen and freeze to your skin!
Read our related article for tips on liquid nitrogen safety.
Handy Tip 3: Latex Is Irritating!
Latex gloves have natural rubber proteins that can affect you and others. They can act as a contact irritant – something that will give you itchy, red skin even if you’re not allergic. For those who are allergic, latex can irritate the skin and even the sinuses and airways, because the proteins can become airborne. Unsurprisingly, nitrile gloves are usually recommended instead of latex gloves!
Handy Tip 4: Glove Etiquette Keeps You Safe and Happy
Even if you are wearing the best gloves possible for handling your lab hazard, you could still be committing a sin against lab safety (and etiquette). Always treat your gloves like they are contaminated, and don’t wear them when you’re touching common surfaces that others may touch bare-handed (e.g. doorknobs, light switches, keyboards, etc.).
Gloves may be sweaty and cumbersome, but these little bits of nitrile, rubber, and flame-resistant polymers will help protect you from the many hazards of lab work! To learn more about gloves, please check out the links below, or visit our SWAG page to pick up a copy of our ebook: The Bitesize Bio Guide to Lab Safety.
To learn more about gloves:
- Cornell University’s Environmental Health & Safety. Personal Protective Equipment.
- National Academies of Science. Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Hand Protection and Working with Nanoparticles.
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Latex Allergy: A Prevention Guide.
- Princeton University Environmental Health & Safety. Gloves.