Gloves are an essential type of personal protective equipment (PPE) used in many industries, from healthcare to food preparation. However, not all disposable gloves are the same, and some types of gloves may be unsuitable for food handling.
Learn what gloves to wear when handling food or eating, how to respect food safety and health department protocols, and whether nitrile gloves are food-safe.
Why Gloves are Necessary for Food Prep
The primary purpose of single-use disposable gloves in food preparation and handling is to protect ingredients and ready-to-eat food products from contamination.
There are two types of contamination: To protect the food from contact with a worker’s hands (specifically, their bare skin) and protect against cross-contamination with other food products.
For example, if you transition from handling raw meat to preparing a sandwich, you risk contaminating the sandwich with meat juices or blood. Changing gloves between tasks protects the sandwich from contamination and lowers the risk of transferring a foodborne illness.
Although not regulated at the federal level, the FDA strongly recommends wearing gloves when preparing food. Many states and municipalities enforce legislation prohibiting restaurant and food preparation employees from touching food with bare hands.
Types of Disposable Gloves
The four most common types of food handling gloves are poly gloves, latex, vinyl, and nitrile. Although each type is suitable for food preparation, they possess different health and safety properties.
Poly gloves are transparent food handling gloves made of polyethylene. They are thin and typically only suitable for low-intensity food preparation duties, such as handling ready-to-eat food and fresh ingredients.
Poly gloves are inexpensive and safe to use (there are no allergies associated with poly gloves). However, they are unsuitable for many other tasks and should only be used for light food preparation.
Latex gloves are made from a material composed of approximately 45% water and 55% tree rubber. Latex can be natural (harvested from rubber trees) or synthetic (produced in a factory) and is known for its high durability and versatility.
In the past, latex gloves were considered the industry standard for disposable gloves. However, studies regarding the prevalence of latex allergies have shown that approximately 4.3% of the general population may suffer allergic reactions from wearing latex products.
Latex allergy symptoms are typically minor skin irritations. However, certain people may suffer from more severe effects, such as coughing, sneezing, difficulty breathing, and even life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
Vinyl gloves are made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a petroleum-based product and one of the most widely-produced plastic polymers in the world.
Vinyl gloves were one of the first latex-free disposable glove materials developed to replace latex gloves. They are versatile and inexpensive, making them suitable for various food-related tasks, including food handling, preparation, and cooking.
They are also ideal for ancillary jobs like operating the cash register, counter tasks, cleaning, and low-risk janitorial tasks.
Although generally safe and versatile, vinyl gloves possess some drawbacks. The PVC material used in a vinyl glove is susceptible to degradation when stretched, even if there are no holes or tears. Stretching a vinyl glove damages its molecular integrity, significantly reducing its effectiveness as a pathogen barrier and increasing contamination risks.
Additionally, PVC is an environmentally-unfriendly material. PVC is the third most-produced type of plastic polymer. Studies revealed it is also one of the most damaging to the environment. This is due to the disposable nature of vinyl gloves and the toxicity of the compounds used in their construction (e.g., phthalates).
Nitrile is a synthetic rubber product. Although the material was invented in 1931, nitrile didn’t become a leading latex-free material for disposable gloves until the mid-1990s.
The primary advantages of nitrile are its high resistance to oils and chemicals and its high durability. The automotive and aeronautical industry initially used nitrile to make oil and fuel hoses, seals, and self-sealing tanks.
Nitrile is less flexible than natural rubbers or vinyl. However, it became the material of choice for medical-grade gloves (also known as exam gloves) due to its higher resistance to cuts and punctures than all other materials.
Although nitrile gloves are generally more expensive per unit than other types, they offer numerous advantages that make them well worth the sticker price.
Are Nitrile Gloves Safe for Eating and Food Prep?
Nitrile is considered to be the gold standard for PPE in the hospitality and food manufacturing industry. They are certified by HACCP and the FDA, and their durable construction means they are less likely to overstretch and split or be punctured during food prep tasks.
Because they are hypoallergenic, there is no risk of employees or consumers having an allergic reaction due to food prep methods. They are also easy to don and doff, reducing the risk of microbial transference between food prep tasks.
Powdered vs. Powder-Free: Which is Safer for Food Prep?
Today, nitrile is the most durable and versatile material available for disposable gloves. Although you don’t need exam-grade nitrile gloves for eating or food preparation, some types and brands may be unsuitable for handling food.
When purchasing nitrile gloves, consider whether you need powdered or powder-free gloves. Powdered gloves are coated in cornstarch powder, a donning agent. While powdered gloves fit better, the cornstarch powder tends to stick to hands, increasing the risk of cross-contamination. Always use non-powdered nitrile gloves for food handling tasks to minimize germ transference.
Purchase High-Quality Nitrile Gloves Today
ICU Production, Inc. is an industry-leading supplier of personal protective equipment with over ten years of experience supplying high-quality gloves, face masks, medical gowns, hand sanitizer, and more. Our customers include healthcare organizations, businesses, and government agencies.
For more information on our products, call us today at (323) 970-2513 or browse our online catalog.