Wearing gloves in public won't protect you from COVID-19, experts say
TORONTO -- For a growing number of retailers across Canada, preventing the spread of COVID-19 involves the use of a face mask.
But an increasing number of Canadians are also reaching for disposable gloves to use as a weapon against the novel coronavirus, particularly when running errands.
While much debate continues to surround the effectiveness of wearing a face mask in public, infectious diseases physician Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti says the answer to whether or not gloves will prevent someone from contracting COVID-19 is much clearer.
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“In public, [wearing gloves] is unnecessary,” Chakrabarti told CTVNews.ca on Thursday. “What I find is that when people are wearing gloves in public, they often wear the same set of gloves everywhere.
“By doing this, you actually are paradoxically putting yourself more at risk for infections.”
Touching various surfaces with the same pair of disposable gloves can not only spread harmful germs, but also transmit the virus from one location to another, Chakrabarti explains, which could do more harm than good.
“The use of gloves is just too fraught with problems of cleanliness,” he said. “They act as an extra thing to clean.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 is mainly transmitted from person-to-person through respiratory droplets released from the mouth or nose. The infection spreads when a person with the virus coughs, sneezes, or exhales, and someone else breathes in these droplets.
It is also possible for someone to become infected if they touch a surface contaminated with COVID-19, and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth.
Dr. Jeff Kwong, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto, says that contact with these mucus membranes is what leads to infection.
“If [the virus] was just on your hands, you won't get it as long as you don't touch your face,” he told CTVNews.ca on Thursday.
According to Chakrabarti, wearing disposable gloves – whether latex, nitrile or vinyl – can mislead people into thinking this is enough to protect themselves from the virus.
“It can give people a false sense of reassurance,” he said. “People tend to wash their hands less when they’re wearing gloves.”
But diligent hand washing continues to be one of the best ways to prevent against contracting COVID-19, explains Kwong.
“People might see [wearing gloves] as an extra layer of protection against things that they’re touching,” he said. “But whether you’re not wearing gloves and you touch something and it’s on your hands, or you are wearing gloves and you touch something…you’re still recommended to wash your hands.”
When running errands, Kwong urges people to use hand sanitizer or wash their hands wherever they go, including as soon as they get home.
“Frequent hand washing is the most important thing,” he said.
The WHO says wearing gloves in public is not considered effective in protecting against the spread of COVID-19.
“You can still pick up COVID-19 contamination on rubber gloves,” reads a graphic on the organization’s website. “If you then touch your face, the contamination goes from your glove to your face and can infect you.”
According to a statement from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) sent to CTVNews.ca, regularly washing or sanitizing your bare hands offers more protection against contracting COVID-19 than wearing non-medical gloves. The national health agency also explains that disposable gloves should not be reused and instead thrown out once taken off.
Instead of wearing gloves, PHAC recommends practising good hand hygiene by frequently washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using either an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 per cent alcohol or a non-alcohol based hand sanitizer approved by Health Canada. Other recommendations made by the agency include not touching your face, and practising respiratory etiquette by coughing into a tissue or sleeve instead of out into the open.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) echo this message, insisting that wearing gloves is not necessary for the general public. According to the institute, regularly washing or sanitizing your hands remains “[t]he best way to protect yourself from germs when running errands and after going out.”
With this in mind, the idea of using hand sanitizer on disposable gloves may seem like an appealing one. Despite concerns over the damage it could cause due to the use of alcohol as a disinfectant, research suggests that using hand sanitizer on both latex and nitrile gloves does little to reduce the protection they offer.
Still, Chakrabarti advises against this, insisting that “hand sanitizer is designed for use on the skin, not on latex or nitrile.”
While Chakrabarti says he understands why people might see the use of gloves as a way of protecting against the spread of COVID-19, he warns this is not the case.
“I understand the reason why people want to do it – it seems like you’re putting a barrier there,” he said. “If you use gloves, just know that they’re not providing you with any extra protection.”
In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while running errands, Kwong and Chakrabarti recommend regularly washing your hands and not touching your face, both in addition to physical distancing.
Whether you’re grocery shopping, picking up medication, or grabbing a cup of coffee, these measures are much more effective than the use of disposable gloves, says Chakrabarti, no matter how trivial they may seem.
“Those things often seem too simple and people want to do more,” said Chakrabarti. “But the very simple things are still the best ones.”