Surgical gloves

Author: Marie Hartley, Staff Writer, 2010.


The primary purpose of surgical gloves is to act as a protective barrier to prevent possible transmission of diseases between healthcare professionals and patients during surgical procedures.

Differences between surgical gloves and medical examination gloves (the type of gloves found in bulk containers in clinical examination rooms) are:

Medical examination gloves help prevent contamination between caregivers and patients. These gloves are used during procedures that do not require sterile conditions, for example drawing blood for a blood test. Some of these gloves can also protect the wearer from harm caused by dangerous chemicals or pharmaceuticals.


Natural rubber latex surgical gloves were first used in 1890. Their usage increased dramatically in the late 1980s, when latex gloves were widely recommended to prevent transmission of blood-borne infections, such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

The incidence of allergic reactions to latex began to rise rapidly among patients and health care workers in the 1990s. Since then, new synthetic glove materials have been introduced, which have differing properties with regards to strength, comfort and sensitivity. However, the majority of surgical gloves are still made from latex.

Common surgical glove materials
Latex Natural
  • Provides the best protection against viruses
  • Excellent sensitivity, elasticity and comfort
  • Durable
  • Can be highly allergenic in susceptible people
  • Hydrocarbon/petroleum-based emollients must be avoided as they weaken the rubber; water-based emollients are preferred when wearing latex gloves
Neoprene Synthetic
  • Latex-free
  • High strength
  • Lower level of elasticity and comfort than latex
  • More expensive than latex
Polyisoprene Synthetic
  • Latex-free
  • Similar properties to latex in terms of elasticity, comfort, sensitivity, and strength
  • Most expensive glove
Nitrile Synthetic
  • Excellent strength and chemical protection
  • Low elasticity, comfort and sensitivity; can be composed of a mix of nitrile and latex to improve these properties

Medical examination gloves are often made of latex or synthetic materials such as nitrile or vinyl (PVC). Vinyl gloves are less durable and provide weaker chemical protection than other glove materials, so they are not suitable for healthcare workers in direct contact with bodily excretions or those who handle chemotherapy drugs.

Elements other than the glove material that determine the level of barrier protection include:

Latex allergy and other skin reactions from surgical gloves

How to avoid skin irritation from surgical gloves

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