You're better off sticking to handwashing and social distancing.

By Leah Groth
April 08, 2020
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If the thought of going grocery shopping or hitting the pharmacy is giving you anxiety these days, you're not alone. As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb—there are currently more than 400,000 reported cases in the US alone—most of us are taking precautionary measures to avoid contracting the virus. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention modified its recommendations to include wearing cloth face coverings when you're out and about—and as more people start covering their faces, many can't help but wonder if they should cover their hands with a pair of gloves, too.

For the general public, that answer is no. In fact, there are only two times the CDC suggests the use of gloves in regards to the COVID-19: If you're cleaning and disinfecting your home, and if you're a healthcare worker treating someone who is a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patient. Gloves have not been advised as a precautionary measure against COVID-19 for the average citizen—and that's largely because of how the disease is (and isn't) transmitted, Jaimie Meyer, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist and assistant professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine, tells Health.

Why can't gloves protect against coronavirus for the general public?

First, a quick refresher on how coronavirus can travel from person to person: “​It's important for people to understand that SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 disease, is a respiratory virus carried on droplets, which means it needs to enter the respiratory tract to cause disease,” says Dr. Meyer. “The primary way it enters the respiratory tract is when people inhale infected droplets. We think a smaller proportion of infections happen when people touch surfaces where the virus lives and then touch their face.”

Basically, you can't contract COVID-19 through touch alone—it does not get absorbed through your skin—and in order to acquire coronavirus through touch, you'll have to touch something contaminated and then touch your face. That's what essentially renders gloves useless. "While gloves might seemingly create a barrier between your hands and infected surfaces, they do not prevent COVID-19 infection because you can still touch your face with your gloved hands," says Dr. Meyer. 

“Gloves are a physical barrier between your hands and the shopping cart or the card machine at the register, but they themselves harbor germs,” adds Niket Sonpal, MD, New York Based Internist and Gastroenterologist and Adjunct Professor at Touro College.

Additionally, you can also contaminate your bare hands when you put on or take off gloves. “Because of these issues, gloves are no more protective than our tried and true strategies of social distancing, washing your hands, and not touching your face,” she points out. It's also important to remember that gloves don't prevent any potential germs from traveling home with you on your food items or containers that you pick up at the store, "so cleaning containers and food items properly is imperative," says Dr. Sonpal. 

And of course, there may be an actual downside to wearing gloves: "[You] may also do more harm than good for the community because you may be taking them away from healthcare workers—they are a precious resource," says Dr. Meyer.

Why are gloves necessary for healthcare workers, but not the general public?

It's important to remember that healthcare workers and other hospital employees come into contact with greater amounts of the virus—and in a medical setting, gloves provide a physical barrier between the patient and physician. "[They] are an extra layer of protection since we are deliberately touching and examining you," Jill Grimes, MD, Board-Certified Family Physician at UT Austin’s Student Health Services, and author of The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook: Your Guide for Everything from Hangovers to Homesickness, tells Health.

“We put gloves on when entering a patient's room to assess the patient, then remove the gloves before leaving the room, and then wash our hands. Doctors and nurses do not keep gloves on from patient to patient,” Dr. Sonpal adds. “Healthcare workers wear gloves to examine all patients—with or without COVID concerns—in order to protect both the doctor and the patient. We don’t want to pass on any germs from our hands (or fingernails, etc.) to your body, especially if we are touching inside your mouth, nose, eyes or elsewhere,” she continues. Or vice-versa. “We don’t want to be exposed to your germs from a potentially infectious skin rash or any body fluids, such as nose bleeds or lacerations.” 

Dr. Meyer also points out that in hospital settings, healthcare workers must complete specific training on how to put on and take off this equipment and wash their hands in between each step -- something most non-medical workers don’t understand.  “Nurses and doctors understand that gloves are not a free ticket to touching your face,” says Dr. Sonpal. 

How to wear and use gloves properly if you still want to wear them:

If wearing a pair of gloves somehow makes you feel safer and possibly remind you not to touch your face, there is no real harm to yourself in doing so, says Dr. Grimes. “The trick is to remember gloves are only keeping your hands clean," she says. That means, even while wearing them, you still can't touch your face, and when it comes time to take the gloves off, you remove them properly. Wearing gloves also doesn't give you a free pass to stop washing your hands—after removing gloves, you still need to wash your hands with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds. 

If you do wear gloves to the store (or, if you're sanitizing your home while caring for a sick person), there are some very specific steps you need to take in removing those gloves, according to an infographic on the CDCs website:

  1. With both hands still gloved, grab or pinch the outside of the glove near one wrist, without touching your bare skin.
  2. Peel the glove away from your body, turning it inside out as you remove it.
  3. Hold the removed glove with the still-gloved hand.
  4. Slip your now-bare hand under the wrist cuff on the gloved hand.
  5. Peel the glove away from your body, turning it in side out as you remove it once again. ("You end up with both gloves inside-out, one wrapped inside the other."
  6. Dispose of the gloves safely—do not reuse them.
  7. Wash your hands with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds.

Keep in mind however, wearing glove should not replace any other precautions you have been taking. That includes proper social distancing, self-isolating, self-quarantining, and wearing a mask when necessary, per the CDC.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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