Gloves are a staple piece of personal protective equipment in the lab. But do you know which type of glove is right for your application? Check out our lab glove selection guide!
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 lab glove types and their suitability, along with some considerations and top tips for glove safety.
So Many Lab Glove Types for So Many Hazards
Science has yet to give us the perfect glove that protects 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 our handy quick lab glove selection guide, and review your options below in Table 1.
Table 1: A quick lab glove selection guide.
Lab glove type
Keytones and esters
Cumbersome and not resistant to hydrocarbons
Protects against cold, but not from contact with liquid nitrogen. Do not submerge
Biological materials and water-based materials
No protection against organic solvents.
May produce allergic reaction from sustained use
Many acids, solvents, oils. Good for handling slippery material
Not resistant to some hydrocarbons
Biological materials, many acids, bases, oil and abrasions
Not resistant to some acids or chlorinated solvents
Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA)
Aromatics, chlorinated solvents and aliphatics
Vunerable to water
Acids, bases, oils and amines
Not resistant to organic solvents
Chlorinated aliphatic and aromatic solvents
Not compatible with keytones
Always check the specifications for your brand of gloves as suitability may vary.
These thick, reusable 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 can lead to dreaded sweaty gloved hands! They also aren’t resistant to hydrocarbons like gasoline.
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!
Made from 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)!
Made from synthetic rubber, neoprene resists wear and many chemicals (but not some hydrocarbons). Because of their thickness, they’re recommended for handling caustic chemicals.
These disposable gloves are 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.
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 from this polymer are good for resisting acids, bases, oils, peroxides, and amines. They also protect against abrasions. However, they’re not compatible with organic solvents—the plasticizers in the glove may even leach into the solvent!
These thick, reusable gloves are made by DuPont. While they’re great at resisting chlorinated and aromatic solvents and protecting you from cuts and abrasions, they’re expensive and incompatible with ketones.
4 Handy Tips for Good Glove Practice
While gloves can seem like second nature to a scientist, there are ways you can boost your glove safety to keep you and your lab mates safe.
Tip 1: Double-gloving Can Be 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 break through 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.
Tip 2: Liquid Nitrogen Can Still Hurt You!
Don’t ever fully immerse your hands (or any other body part) in liquid nitrogen, even if you’re wearing gloves! Cryogenic gloves protect you against incidental contacts, 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.
Tip 3: Latex Is Irritating!
Latex gloves have natural rubber proteins that can affect you and others. They can act as a contact irritant, which is 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!
Tip 4: Good Glove Etiquette Keeps You and Others 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.).
Lab Glove Selection Guide Summarized
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, and grab a copy of our eBook: The Bitesize Bio Guide to Lab Safety.
- National Academies of Science. Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Hand Protection. [Accessed 24 August 2022]
- National Academies of Science. Working with Nanoparticles. [Accessed 24 August 2022]
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Latex Allergy: A Prevention Guide. [Accessed 24 August 2022]
- Princeton University Environmental Health & Safety. Gloves. [Accessed 24 August 2022]
Originally published January 2015. Reviewed and updated December 2022.