Our optimum pH level is 5.5, which maintains our skin

More Than Barrier Protection, Single-Use Gloves Manage Skin Health

Skin health can be compromised from a continued cycle of hands going from a warm, wet glove interior to the rapid drying caused by evaporation when gloves are removed, and then back again.

We've heard it all before—what good is PPE if it isn't being worn? One of the biggest complaints about safety equipment is that it gets in the way of work, rather than helping get the job done. To be effective, PPE needs to protect as well as be comfortable, or you run the risk of workers ignoring the safety requirements altogether. No one benefits from that scenario.

Workers tend to think of PPE as cumbersome, something that hinders job performance instead of a method to protect their most valuable asset . . . themselves.

Let's look at the hands, for example. They're the most advanced and versatile tools we have, and they're central to everything we do. From grip to dexterity to reach, our hands provide a method to control and maneuver items like no other part of our bodies is able to do.

Many PPE requirements for hands look to establish a level of protection between the worker and the external environment. Common terms include barrier protection, aimed at keeping irritants away from the skin; abrasion resistance that protects hands from scrapes and cuts; and tensile strength, which is the measure of stretch and strength in MPa of glove material before breakage occurs.

But an increasing movement in PPE is overall health and wellness in the workplace, and single-use gloves are no exception. With innovations that focus on the well-being of the individual wearer, there's a new set of single-use glove terms cropping up that go beyond the traditional notions of protecting the hand only with the outside of the glove.

1. Holistic Hand Health: Not only is hand protection viewed in terms of the external elements, but the environment that comes in actual contact with the skin needs to be considered to ensure skin health remains optimal.

2. Managed Interior: An environment that mitigates the negative aspects within the glove itself that lead to skin irritation, discomfort, and reduced productivity.

3. Skin Safeguards: Those elements designed to protect skin when subjected to an occlusive environment, as typically found when wearing single-use gloves; typically in the form of hand health technologies integrated into the glove itself or through the use of polymer composites liners and skin creams.

Keeping hands safe is no small feat and making sure they stay protected is the focus of companies like ours, which develops both interior hand health and exterior performance technologies that are incorporated directly into single-use gloves.

Our hands are the tools we carry with us, no matter where our jobs take us, and many manufacturing and health care workplace environments rely on these tools to be fully operational every minute, every shift, every day. The perspective should be one that examines not only safeguarding the wearer from external hazards, but also one that addresses the effects of the environment the hand "lives" in.

Holistic Hand Health
Many workers across these types of industries don single-use gloves as required by safety codes, but when asked, most equate these gloves with reduced dexterity, discomfort through sweating or skin irritation, and increased hand fatigue. For hours on end, their hands are subjected to a hot, sticky, wet environment that can not only make working uncomfortable, but also can significantly impede productivity and lead to more serious, longer-term health issues. Ask any glove wearer about wet work, and you're sure to get at least an eye roll.

Current moisture management technique is to change gloves—just don a new pair. Sounds simple, right? But this requires time to be taken out of the worker's day to replace gloves that get uncomfortable too quickly, sapping productivity. And it leads to increased supply costs if gloves are lasting only a mere hour or so during a shift before needing to be changed. Single-use gloves not only serve as an integral protective layer, but they also must be useful and effective. Unfortunately, skin health can be compromised from a continued cycle of hands going from a warm, wet glove interior to the rapid drying caused by evaporation when gloves are removed, and then back again.

The environment within a glove is typically hot, sweaty, and downright uncomfortable. Another method sometimes used to limit the harmful effect of moisture on the skin within a single-use glove is to apply a cream or lotion, essentially adding another layer, and another step, in the hand protection process. But this does little to correct the problem. Moisture still accumulates, the temperature within the glove still rises, and the wearer still experiences the discomfort that makes it harder to do his or her job.

Taking the extra step of donning a liner can be useful in helping to absorb moisture, but now we've added the extra cost, inconvenience, and downtime of donning two pairs of gloves at every change. But what if we actually controlled the environment within the glove, reducing the negatives typically associated with a single-use glove? By looking at the interior of the glove as well as the exterior, the hand/glove environment is viewed from a more holistic perspective and a more universal approach can be applied.

Managed Interior
The main reason to wear any glove in a work environment is for protection, but many definitions limit this to mean protection from the external environment. While this is by far the most commonly recognized aspect, there is more to it than just that. Our skin is our first layer of defense against external elements, and it's naturally designed to fight infection and environmental stresses. The skin is the human body's largest single organ, so taking care of its health makes a lot of sense.

And yet, when a single-use glove is worn for extended periods of time, it can disrupt the skin's natural balance. Utilizing technology that manages the interior of a single-use glove provides benefits to the wearer, to the company, and to the safety personnel charged with keeping everyone safe and in compliance with PPE protocols. Identifying the negative characteristics of an occlusive environment, mainly perspiration and lack of airflow, enables single-use glove manufacturers to focus on developing techniques that help manage conditions within the glove instead of relying on methods that drive up supply costs and drive down productivity, such as glove changes or the application of lotions and creams.

Skin Safeguards
To manage the interior, you need techniques that address the root of the problem, and several technologies have been developed to target just that.

Let's look first at the pH level, or acidity, of the skin. Healthy hands maintain a natural pH level of approximate 5.5 on a scale from 1 (most acidic) to 14 (most alkaline). The thin, protective layer on the skin's surface, referred to as the acid mantle, is where the skin’s natural pH level is created when certain elements of the skin and sweat mix.

Prolonged exposure to excessive moisture and warmer temperatures can upset this balance, leaving the skin more susceptible to irritation or even infection in severe instances. By incorporating a pH balancing agent into the glove interior, the skin's natural pH levels are maintained, so the skin remains uncompromised.

In addition, moisture stemming from accumulated sweat and hindered by restricted airflow begins to break down the top layers of the skin, making it more vulnerable to injury. When exposed to repetitious donning and doffing, the skin can go from extremely macerated (softened due to sweat) to extremely dry, causing chapping, cracking, and redness, which leads to tenderness, pain, and breaks in the skin’s protective barrier. In the worst cases, contact dermatitis can develop, which takes the wearer from mere discomfort to full-blown incapacity.  Now, lost wages and reduced productivity come into play.

Moisture wicking materials integrated into the glove itself actually pull the sweat away from the skin and lock it against the glove. This promotes a cooler, dryer interior, lengthens wear time for each pair of gloves, and enables the user to comfortably perform manual tasks more effectively.

If skin health is properly maintained, then the benefits of protectants, such as an aloe vera-based gel, can serve to further promote skin health. Not only is a natural balance maintained and moisture removed from the skin’s surface, but natural therapeutics also can deliver soothing conditioners all day long. This goes way beyond the traditional definition of barrier protection. There are, in fact, two barriers: one protecting on the outside of the glove and one protecting on the inside.

Don't Forget Your Roots
Although a new day has dawned on the single-use glove, some important, tried-and-true principles still apply:

  • Proper fit is critical. Too big or too small, and the wearer will suffer from reduced dexterity or unnecessary fatigue and stress.
  • Features of a glove must match the job at hand. Is full texturing required to ensure safe handling of materials? Do you require high-visibility gloves for added worker safety near running machinery?
  • The ability to quickly don and doff gloves facilitates productivity. Glove wearers don’t want to fight to get a pair on or take them off. Make sure the single-use gloves you select are easy to use.

Redefined Single-Use Gloves
Protection from the whole environment, inside and out, is what today's single-use gloves are all about. These once simple components of PPE are redefining hand health through the incorporation of technologies that wick moisture away from the hand and help maintain the skin's natural pH level when single-use gloves are worn.

Instead of becoming a barrier to productivity, today's single-use glove provides added protection and better overall skin health. It's not just about meeting safety requirements—gloves are providing a better environment for hands to operate in.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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