As you walk around the supermarket, you may notice some of your fellow shoppers are wearing rubber gloves. One woman picks up a box of cereal, puts it back, touches her face with her gloved hand and tucks her hair behind her ear. She then pulls out her phone to consult her shopping list.
Given what we know about how COVID-19 spreads – predominantly through droplets expelled in the air, but also through touching infected surfaces – if someone with the virus on their hands had already touched that cereal box, the woman may have transferred it to her gloves, her face and her phone.
It’s understandable that people are keen to protect themselves against coronavirus, but one expert in hygiene wants us to know that wearing gloves isn’t the best way to go about it – in fact, it might do more harm than good.
“What good are gloves going to do?” asks Professor Sally Bloomfield, honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Whilst you’re walking around the supermarket, you could easily touch your nose, mouth and eyes with gloved hands. The only reason it might help is if you remember you have gloves on and think: ‘Oh no, I shouldn’t touch my face’.
“I don’t understand why we’re wearing gloves,” she continues. “I think people think that masks and gloves go together, because that’s PPE [personal protective equipment], and in hospitals people wear masks and gloves, so outside if you’re going to wear a mask, you’re going to wear gloves.”
The reality is that in hospitals, staff may be coming into close contact with patients who are very ill and they may also be taking care of bodily fluids, but are trained to use the gloves properly. That includes taking them off safely – you have to reach inside each glove and peel it inside out without touching the outside – before disposing of them.
For the general public, this doesn’t make sense. Gloves are just “an extension of our hands”, says Prof Bloomfield – and wearing them could be lulling people into a false sense of security and making them think that they’re protected, when they aren’t necessarily.
The public seems to have grasped the idea of social distancing better than it has an understanding of transmission via hands and surfaces, she adds. Touch a surface contaminated with the virus, then touch your face with a gloved hand and it’s akin to touching your face with your actual hand – we know from some studies that the virus can live on surfaces for up to 72 hours.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) doesn’t recommend that members of the public wear rubber gloves. “Regularly washing your bare hands offers more protection against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves,” says the WHO guidance. “You can still pick up COVID-19 contamination on rubber gloves.”
Also of issue is that gloves are frequently discarded on the ground rather than in bins, which is not only a problem for the environment and wildlife, but also pretty grim if they do have the virus on it and, for example, a child picks one up.
While disposable gloves are not a replacement for hand washing, Dr. Ed Wright, senior lecturer in microbiology at the University of Sussex, says they can act as a form of protection when hand-washing isn’t possible, hand sanitizer isn’t available and you are unsure whether or not a surface is contaminated – but only if used and disposed of safely
“Safe removal and disposal of the gloves would mean that if there was virus on the surface none of it would remain on your hands,” he says. “Using gloves correctly is crucial though because, as with face masks, if they are used incorrectly or cause people to stray from the other public health measures, any benefit is far outweighed by the increase in risk from this change in behavior.”
While the public may worry the virus can transmit through the skin, both experts we spoke to stress that it cannot. The key routes of transmission are respiratory: so, breathing in someone else’s infected droplets that they expel when breathing, talking or coughing, or through touching infected surfaces.
“It is not possible for the virus to infect us through the skin so washing our hands with soap, or using alcohol hand gel, is a highly effective way to inactivate and remove the virus,” says Dr. Wright, “and minimizes the chance of introducing it into our respiratory tract by touching your face, the major route of infection for SARS-CoV-2.”
Prof Bloomfield’s approach is to sanitize her hands both before going into a supermarket and when she leaves, to kill any virus on her hands. The same is advisable in any public space. And once you get home, give your hands a proper wash with soap – remembering the 20-second rule.
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Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.