Opinion: there's little evidence that wearing gloves in public offers protection from contracting the virus

In recent months, we have become all too familiar with images of healthcare professionals covered from head to toe in personal protective equipment, to shield from exposure to and possible contamination with the coronavirus. These images serve as a stark reminder of how serious the risk of contamination from Covid-19 can be. The use of facemasks, medical gloves, goggles, visors and other personal protective equipment is essential in protecting healthcare workers in hospitals and other medical settings, like testing centres and laboratories, as their risk of exposure to infection is high.

Frontline healthcare workers are trained in the use of this equipment and are well-equipped with the clinical decision-making skills to determine when and how to wear this equipment. Most importantly, they know when and how to remove contaminated equipment safely, without risk to themselves or others.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Trevor Vaugh from Maynooth University on the history of personal protection equipment for healthcare workers

In recent weeks, the wearing of disposable, single use plastic or latex gloves has become commonplace in public places, particularly in supermarkets and on public transport. This is despite little evidence that wearing gloves in public offers protection from contracting the virus. While intentions are good, the indiscriminate wearing of disposable gloves among the general public is largely futile and may lead to more harm than good.

The World Health Organisation does not recommend the use of gloves as a means of preventing Covid-19 illness and the HSE advises against wearing disposable gloves instead of washing hands. Recently Professor Martin Cormican, HSE Clinical Lead for Infection Control, described gloves as "a distraction from cleaning your hands and then keeping your hands from your face".

Why are gloves not recommended?

There is little evidence that gloves protect against Covid-19 infection. Yet many well intentioned people wear gloves believing that they are somehow protecting themselves. Disposable gloves are not designed for extended use and rip easily. Rips may go unnoticed, or gloves may have pinhole perforations which compromise the integrity of the gloves, thereby potentially placing the person wearing the gloves at risk. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Aisling Moloney examines why countries have revised their public health advice around wearing face masks in public

Over-reliance on gloves can lead to complacency and not washing hands frequently. Wearing gloves can give users a false sense of security and leads to wearing disposable gloves beyond their intended single use.

The Covid-19 virus can attach to gloves in the same way that it attaches to the hands. For example, if you touch a contaminated supermarket trolley handle with gloved hands, the gloves can become contaminated with the virus. Touching your face with the same contaminated gloves adds to the risk of you contracting the virus. This is especially concerning given that research finds that face touching occurs anywhere from 3 to 23 times per hour on average.

The risk of cross-contamination of others is also a consideration because touching surfaces with contaminated gloves can lead to further spread of the virus onto other surfaces. In addition, hands can become contaminated when taking off gloves and therefore, hand-washing immediately on removal of gloves is essential.

Another issue of alarm is the seemingly widespread careless disposal of used gloves and sanitizing wipes in public places. Concerns have been raised about used gloves being left in shopping trollies, while the dumping of used gloves on public walkways in Derry was reported in recent days. This health and safety concern has led Clare County Council to issue an appeal to people to take used gloves home when bins are not available so they can be disposed of appropriately.

What should we do to protect ourselves?

Gloves are a weapon in the armoury of frontline healthcare workers in the fight against Covid-19. As cases continue to rise in Ireland and across the world, we are well advised to leave the gloves to healthcare workers, Instead, we should wash our hands frequently, with either soap and water or a hand sanitiser for 20-30 seconds, especially after visits to the supermarket, pharmacy or if we have been on public transport.

We need to stop wearing disposable gloves in public as they are not recommended for daily use. Gloves should not be treated as an alternative to hand washing as regularly washing hands with soap and water or using hand sanitiser is a better defence against the virus. We also need to avoid touching our eyes, nose and mouth. Visit the HSE website for further information on how to protect yourself and others.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ