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The gloves are off

It’s hard to keep my theatrical frown in check when I spot someone out and about in town wearing disposable gloves. My mind drifts into work-mode, wondering whether they were donned correctly, how they will be removed and disposed of, how many items they touched, or whether the wearer thought to remove or change them every time they went into a different building or picked up something belonging to someone else. Personally I think it’s one of life’s great annoyances, like unjustified text or crumbs in bed. The fact is, wearing gloves for tasks that don’t involve direct contact with body fluids is happily not necessary. Moreover, if it means you wash your hands less often (cos they’re constantly sheathed-up!), or transfer your glovey germs to more things with an air of invincibility, then it’s not only unnecessary, it’s potentially harmful.

Listen, I’m a fan of handwashing, and a fan of appropriate glove use. Visit my consultation room and you’ll be asked to wash your hands before leaving. And you won’t need to touch any doorhandles – I’m happy to act as a cheery doorman. Once you’re back home without my beady eyes scrutinising your wash-basin tempo, you can relax with your own choice of soap. Please don’t spend extra cash on soaps claiming to be “anti-bacterial” (or indeed anti-viral), because in fact the way soap works is that it makes your hands slippery and basically stops germs from clinging on. No special chemicals required – just a nice lather, and make sure you get it in all the nooks and crannies. Alcohol gel is a decent second-best but it is not as good as soap and water. Go find a sink if you can. Run!

In order to get into the perplexing pysche of the persistent glove-wearer, let’s look at the reasons why we might pop on those gloves in the first place:

1 – protecting our skin from harsh chemicals. Fair enough; nobody likes dermatitis (fancy term for eczema – can be caused by irritant chemicals or allergies), but would washing up gloves do instead? They are thicker and can be cleaned before and after removing, and then reused. Planet points avalanche! If you can go through life without the novelty leopard print cuffs, you can buy more eco-friendly rubber gloves that are made with latex from sustainable rubber plant plantations. Sounds cute right? Check out Friendly Turtle and online retailer Down Your High St, whose gloves are compostable! It’s true in York we have very hard water and hence I’d recommend having some moisturiser on tap. Quite literally – use a pump refill from your local zero waste shop or a bar.

2 – protecting our skin from germs on other people or objects. Well unless the people or objects are visibly caked in manure or blood (yes folks, other body fluids are also available) then really there’s no need. Clearly it's a big old "yes" in situations where you might come into contact with these fluids, e.g. helping someone on the toilet, clearing up vomit, or performing a blood test, cervical smear or other intimate examination. Oh go on then, surgeons get a free pass here too.

3 – altruistically protecting other people from our germs. Well now, thanks for being so thoughtful though actually there’s an easier way – involves less sweat, less cost, no stinky rubber, and you can still feel your fingertips: please just wash your hands thoroughly. 20 seconds should do it. Sing the chorus from TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ or say the alphabet slowly if you’re fed up of singing Happy Birthday twice. And if you're poorly, please just stay home.

To summarise, our friends at the Royal College of Nursing have published some very excellent information suggesting that:

you only need to wear gloves if you’re likely to come into contact with body fluids or chemicals

But it’s not only NHS staff using disposable gloves. No Siree. Since before COVID gloves have been encouraged in petrol stations, and worn at hairdressers’, and on supermarket deli counters. And recently I've noticed them on patients coming into the surgery and to the vaccine hub, in The Repair Shop, and (sit down for this one) in Line of Duty. That’s right folks, if you weren’t busy scouring the screen for embedded clues, you’ll have noticed our hero Steve Arnott in a rare moment where he wasn’t doing red wine and opiate chasers, donning the black gloves to perform a search of yet another overt-conflict-of-interest love-interest’s home. We don’t see what happens afterwards to the gloves but I comfort myself thinking he tucked them into a handmade fabric drawstring bag that could be put straight in the washing machine back at Mother-of-God HQ. Yes?

When I did my elective in Nepal in 2006, the hospital washed and reused all their ‘disposable’ gloves. It was just completely normal there due to lack of resources. Understandably we are now balancing infection control measures which are vital in order to exit the pandemic stage left, and it’s possible to do this safely whilst also asking the question: “at what cost”. Environmental, as well as cost to the NHS. Just think what all the money we spend on unnecessary gloves could pay for. Extra nurses. Swifter access to talking therapies for mental wellbeing. Equipment to help people stay in their own homes. A much-needed boost for our colleagues in the social care sector.

So if you’re a hairdresser and/or regularly use chemicals, I’d love to hear of any eco-friendly solutions you have. Could washing-up gloves be an option if they could be washed and reused between jobs/clients? And how about carrying your own washable woolly gloves in the car for use at the petrol station?

It’s absolutely possible to halt the mountain of plastic waste. We’re lucky to have enthusiastic minds working tirelessly on the issue of reusable PPE, which currently includes masks and aprons. And check out my video on this topic over on the light-hearted Media page, though the message is serious: when it comes to gloves, please reduce your use – and encourage others to do so too.

Right, I'll glove you and leave you now...

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