Reports of allergic reactions to non-latex gloves like nitrile have become more common in recent years as industries like healthcare shift to latex-free alternatives. While research on the topic remains extremely limited, several theories have emerged suggesting possible causes of allergic reactions.
When reports of reactions first surfaced more than a decade ago, many assumed that since latex gloves were often being manufactured in the same facilities as nitrile gloves, that the nitrile gloves were being contaminated with latex proteins.
Some argue that allergic reactions to non-latex gloves are due to chemicals called accelerators used during production. They believe that accelerators, such as carbonates and thiurams, may cause a delayed (Type IV) reaction to these chemicals. The Food and Drug Administration has approved marketing "accelerator free" nitrile gloves as non-allergenic, but reactions to the gloves have still been reported.
Most gloves are intended to prevent chemicals and other contaminants from permeating in or out of the glove. Consequently, some glove materials offer better ventilation than others. Skin irritation called urticaria (more commonly referred to as hives) can sometimes occur when a glove lacks breathability and moisture builds up under the glove.
A variety of weather conditions can cause skin irritation and extremes in weather can intensify these effects. Cold weather can cause skin to become dry, red, itchy, and sore. Heat rash can appear in hot, humid weather when the body’s sweat glands become blocked, causing the skin to become red and blistery, and dry weather conditions can cause eczema to flare up.
Many soaps and cleansers used in businesses and homes alike contain chemicals and fragrances known to cause mild to severe skin irritation. Additionally, because many soaps contain detergents designed to break down grease and oil, they can break down the layer of natural oil on the skin. This oil not only provides a protective barrier, but it also keeps the skin moist. As a result, people who wash frequently or use a great deal of cleansers containing detergents may find their skin becomes red and dry to the point that it may even crack and bleed. Prolonged contact with hot water may have similar effects.
Some glove materials will begin to leak if worn longer than they are intended for use. Consequently, some allergic reactions may actually be to chemicals leaking through the glove instead of the glove material itself. These reactions can be prevented by consulting with your glove supplier to determine the proper length of time a glove should be worn, as usage length varies by glove type.
It is widely believed that allergic reactions to non-latex gloves are far less prevalent than those to natural rubber latex. Estimates of prevalence, both of the population at-large and within industries with frequent non-latex glove usage, are unknown.
Try powder-free alternative glove types if a reaction to nitrile or other non-latex gloves occurs. When possible, increasing the frequency with which you change gloves may also help reduce the potential for a reaction. Consult with your glove supplier if using lotions or other moisturizers, as these may weaken the glove's barrier resistance. If problems persist, consult your doctor. For more serious symptoms, such as shortness of breath, seek emergency care immediately.