Skip to main content
The History Of Disposable Gloves

The History Of Disposable Gloves

Posted by SOS Cleanroom on 5th Aug 2019

As professionals in a variety of industrial and medical fields know, disposable gloves are a crucial tool in their work. 

SOS Cleanroom is aware of how much the disposable glove has contributed to modern medicine and science, and with appreciation we present a blog on the history of this fundamental invention.

The Invention Of The Disposable Glove

In May of 1889, Dr. William Stewart Halstead, the first chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, came up with the idea for disposable gloves because of a request from his nursing assistant. The assistant, Caroline Hampton, complained that the chemicals she handled during surgical procedures were giving her a rash on her hands.

Dr. Halstead reached out to the Goodyear Rubber Company with a design, and together they invented the world’s first pair of rubber gloves. These disposable options were far thinner than reusable nitrile gloves and those made with other materials. Hampton loved the gloves so much that Dr. Halstead ended up ordering more from Goodyear, and soon Halstead’s entire surgical staff was wearing them during operations. It is ironic to consider that the gloves were widely accepted by Halstead’s team because they allowed increased for dexterity, not because of their germ-stopping powers.

At the time Dr. Halstead’s gloves were coming into popularity, the medical community still did not have a proper understanding of how important cleanliness is to the medical field. In 1881, Louis Pasteur proposed the germ theory of disease, which essentially stated that diseases were caused by microscopic organisms. When that theory was finally widely accepted, disposable gloves were suddenly seen as even more pertinent to the medical industry.

Prior to the advent of the disposable glove, surgery patients had a 50% mortality rate, with many of those deaths due to germ transference between doctor and patient. Once it was established that germs cause disease, the use of disposable gloves during surgery procedures jumped significantly. It wasn’t long before wearing gloves during an operation became compulsory.

Rubber Gloves Get Sterilized

In 1894, Joseph Lister established a process to sterilize rubber gloves with a chemical called carbolic acid. Lister, being the first doctor to understand how important instrument sterilization is in the medical field, also knew that it was just as important to keep surgical gloves clean. After wide adoption of his process, deaths of surgery patients due to infection dropped dramatically.

We were still a long way off from infection-free surgery, however. After Lister’s process spread to other doctors, they were still in the habit of reusing the same pair of gloves over and over again, which meant that they were still spreading germs to their patients. That didn’t change until the 1960s.

Gamma Irradiation became the best way to sterilize disposable gloves in 1965, when The Ansell Rubber Company adopted gamma irradiation as a cheap way to sterilize the gloves they manufactured. This method was soon adopted by other companies in the rubber industry, and it is still used to sterilize disposable gloves to this day.

Ansell’s introduction of irradiation machines now meant that latex gloves were truly disposable. Instead of maintaining a single pair of gloves for extended periods of time, surgeons could use a new sterilized pair and throw them away after use, thereby lowering the chance for infection to spread.

Advances In Material

Disposable gloves were primarily made of rubber up until the 1990s, when it was discovered that rubber latex didn’t stop certain chemicals from making contact with a user’s skin. In 1996, a scientist named Karen Wetterhahn died from complications due to mercury absorption. It was found that the latex gloves that Wetterhan had been using during her experiments were not thick enough to stop the mercury from leaking through onto Wetterhan’s skin. After this incident took place, researchers pushed plastic-laminated rubber gloves as the best alternative to standard latex gloves in scientific experiments. The technology of gloves has advanced considerably since then.

These days, disposable gloves are made of more than just rubber. It became necessary to find alternatives to the traditional latex glove after it was discovered that many users were developing a latex allergy from wearing latex gloves for extended periods of time. Over time, several different types of disposable gloves have become available.

The most common types of disposable gloves are:

  • Latex gloves, made of natural rubber
  • Nitrile gloves, made of synthetic rubber
  • Vinyl gloves, made of synthetic materials
  • Neoprene gloves, made of synthetic rubber
  • Poly gloves, made of polyethylene

Latex gloves are still the disposable glove of choice when it comes to everyday use, but thanks to scientific progress we have a glove for every situation, whether you have a latex allergy or need a pair that can handle toxic chemicals.

What’s With That Powder?

Rubber gloves just don’t slide on that easily without a little help, so manufacturers figured out how to make putting them on easier by coating them with powder. Originally, it was found that cornstarch worked best as a way to make the natural “stickiness” of latex more manageable. Silicon was also used as a powder later on.

Alternatives to powdered gloves became necessary, in part, due to the rise of latex allergies in medical professionals and patients. Fortunately,allergy sufferers in this day and age don’t have to worry about getting a reaction from their gloves anymore!

SOS Cleanroom Can Get You The Cleanroom Supplies You Need

As one of the largest distributors of cleanroom supplies in the United States, SOS Cleanroom can get you a variety of disposable gloves for any situation. Whether you need latex or nitrile, you’ll find what you’re looking for at our website.