Which Is Better Protection Against COVID-19: Gloves Or Hand Washing, Or Both?

An infectious disease specialist weighs in.


Yamkela Mdaka |

When you walk into a grocery store and see people kitted out in medical gloves, it’s easy to feel like you’re the one not doing enough to protect yourself against COVID-19. But this is not necessarily the case. This World Hand Washing Day we’ll look at why washing your hands is still king when it comes to protecting yourself against COVID-19, and how to use gloves safely if you choose to.

Before we even start talking about glove-protection etiquette, it’s important to mention that wearing medical gloves is not yet a recommendation for the general (non-medical) public from the SA Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organisation. Washing your hands regularly and thoroughly, not touching your face and wearing a mask when you make essential trips are still the key recommendations for protection.

Gloves aren’t necessarily the safest option

In an interview with CNBC, Dr Mary Schmidt, an infectious disease specialist, said that it’s important to remember that wearing gloves doesn’t exempt you from anything. She also highlights that one of the key factors that can make gloves unsafe for non-medical individuals is the false sense of security wearing them can create.

“People get this idea that they’re protected, and then use gloves to touch themselves or touch their face. [They forget that] as soon as those gloves are contaminated, it’s just like having your bare hands [contaminated too],” she said.

READ MORE: Does Hand Sanitiser Ever Expire? Here’s What Doctors Want You To Know

Wearing gloves when going out is the same as walking around with unwashed/’unsanitised’ hands until the gloves are disposed of and replaced with a fresh pair. Essentially, wearing gloves at the grocery store and then rummaging through your purse to search for your bank card while your gloves are still on is, in a sense, counterproductive.

With the sanitisation protocols present throughout all essential service stores, it’s probably wiser to go with your bare hands so that you can keep sanitising regularly throughout your shopping process.

Wearing gloves the right way

If you’re planning to wear gloves anyway, it’s important to know the correct ways to go about this process, otherwise you could be placing yourself at greater risk. This is according to the World Health Organisation who remind us that gloves do not provide complete protection against hand contamination.

“Pathogens may gain access to the [wearer’s] hands via small defects in gloves or by contamination of the hands during glove removal so hand hygiene by hand-washing remains the basic to guarantee hand decontamination after glove removal,” the World Health Organisation says.

“Prolonged use of gloves for contact precautions in the absence of considering the need to perform hand hygiene can result in the transmission of germs.”

How to wear them

The first thing to do is to always make sure that you wash your hands (with soap) or sanitise your hands immediately before you put your gloves on.

The World Health Organisation offers a step-by-step guide on how to correctly put your gloves on to both hands:

  1. Take out a glove from its original box.
  2. Touch only a restricted surface of the glove at top edge of the cuff.
  3. Put on the first glove.
  4. Take the second glove with the bare hand by gripping it at the top edge of the cuff.
  5. To avoid touching the skin of the forearm with the gloved hand, pull the cuffed end of the glove with your index and middle flinger of the gloved hand and pull the glove in to the second hand.

How to take them off

There’s a high risk of cross-contamination when you’re taking off your gloves, and this should be treated as a very sensitive action. One study found that 59.2% of glove removals in their study resulted in contaminating the skin or clothing of the wearer.

“Contamination of the skin and clothing of healthcare personnel occurs frequently during the removal of contaminated gloves [and] educational interventions that include practice with immediate visual feedback on skin and clothing contamination can significantly reduce the risk of contamination during the removal of personal protective equipment,” the study says.

Here are the CDC guidelines for removing gloves

  1. Grasp the outside of one glove at the wrist while making sure not to touch your bare skin.
  2. Peel the glove away from your body by peeling it inside out.
  3. Hold the glove you just removed in your gloved hand.
  4. Peel off the second glove by putting your fingers inside the glove at the top of the wrist.
  5. Turn the second glove inside out while pulling it away from your body, leaving the first glove inside the second one.
  6. Dispose of the gloves safely and make sure not to reuse.
  7. Clean your hands (by washing with soap or using an alcohol-based sanitiser) immediately after removing the gloves.

Hand-washing remains king

Nothing will ever be as powerful as washing your hands regularly and not touching your face in preventing you from contracting COVID-19. This, coupled with effective social distancing and wearing a face mask whenever you go out, is unmatched in protecting you from the virus.

READ MORE: Are DIY Fabric Face Masks Really Effective At Protecting Against The Novel Coronavirus?

“Since COVID-19 is an ‘enveloped’ virus, which has a fatty later that helps it survive, hand-washing is key,” Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics, said in a statement.

“Lathering, scrubbing and rinsing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds will remove the virus from the skin while breaking up the envelope protecting the virus, which disables it… At the start of a pandemic, when there aren’t any pharmaceutical interventions, like a vaccine, hand-washing is a simple, yet effective measure that can be easily implemented.”

READ MORE ON: Coronavirus Health Health Advice