Despite most latex allergies being relatively mild, they can occasionally have serious consequences and should never be taken lightly. Many workplaces are avoiding the use of latex gloves in an effort to protect workers and those they might encounter (including the public, in medical or food service industries, for example).
However, a proper risk assessment should be done before deciding on a suitable safety glove material for the workplace. This is why understanding latex glove allergies is imperative for Occupational Health & Safety officers and those in charge of making PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) purchases for the workplace. In this article, we unpack the severity of latex allergies, who they can affect, and the best ways to avoid triggering a latex glove allergy in your workplace.
What is latex?
Latex is a milk-like sap found in the Hevea brasiliensis or ‘rubber’ trees found in Africa and South East Asia, and is comprised of a mixture of water, sugar and proteins. Natural rubber latex (NRL) is used to make many household and industrial items, including latex rubber gloves, balloons, condoms, shoes, underwear, pacifiers (dummies) and even tyres. It is also used to create many medical and hygiene-related pieces of equipment, such as intravenous tubing, syringes, catheters, dental dams, and more.
Rubber trees are tapped in order to collect the sap, and then during manufacturing, chemical accelerators and other chemicals may be added to make the end-product harder and more suitable for its intended purpose. After chemical treatment, latex rubber gloves and other latex products are heated and then washed to remove chemical residue.
Natural rubber latex should not be confused with synthetic rubber, such as synthetic rubber gloves (generally nitrile or neoprene gloves, for example). These products do not contain natural latex and are made from entirely synthetic material.
Reactions to latex rubber products such as latex gloves can be broken down into three general categories:
- Immediate hypersensitivity, or Type I hypersensitivity
A latex glove allergy is often referred to as a Type I allergy, which implies an immediate reaction which occurs after direct contact exposure to latex. People who suffer from a Type I allergy are generally allergic to the protein found in latex. The protein allergy is most likely to cause a reaction when sufferers are exposed (by touching or breathing in particles) to elasticised latex material such as condoms, latex gloves and balloons, rather than solid items such as car tyres.
Reactions can include localised hives or rashes on the skin, or systematic reactions such as generalised urticaria (pale, red, raised itchy bumps on the skin); rhinitis (cold-like symptoms similar to hay fever, such as a runny nose, sneezing and sinus pain); wheezing and asthma; swelling of mouth; shortness of breath; and can even lead to anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal.
- Allergic contact dermatitis: Delayed hypersensitivity or Type IV hypersensitivity
A Type IV allergy is indicated by a delayed reaction (which occurs after half an hour or more) and is generally triggered by exposure to the chemical accelerators used in latex products. Symptoms include blistering, itching and crusting, which can look similar to a poison ivy skin rash. These types of reactions tend to occur 10 – 24 hours after direct exposure to the material (although can occur more quickly) and, if left untreated, can worsen over the following 72 hours.
- Irritant contact dermatitis
Latex gloves can also cause skin reactions such as irritation contact dermatitis. Irritation often means the sufferer will experience redness, itchiness, sensitivity, or even a rash. Irritation is often not an allergic reaction, as such, and will clear once the material is removed and contact ceases.
Who does a latex glove allergy affect?
Figures around latex allergies are inconclusive, with some studies suggesting that around 12% of healthcare workers and 6% of the general population suffer from a latex allergy, while UK studies done at the Greater Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London suggest that up to 40% of patients have antibodies to latex. Other studies show that latex allergies affect up to 73% of people with spina bifida.
What is clear in the research is that repeated exposure is a factor, which means that those who come into regular contact with latex are more likely to develop sensitisation to latex and as a result, a latex allergy. This makes latex particularly unsuitable for those working in medical and laboratory environments, such as healthcare workers and lab workers, as they are required to wear gloves daily. The condition can also be more prevalent in rubber industry workers. For this reason, the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) in the UK recommends workplaces complete a thorough risk assessment before opting to use latex gloves and, where possible, to consider a synthetic glove alternative such as nitrile or vinyl.
“NRL proteins are substances hazardous to health under COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations). Therefore, COSHH and the COSHH ACOP (Approved Code of Practice) apply, including the specific requirements for the control of substances that cause occupational asthma.” – Health & Safety Executive, United Kingdom
Preventing latex allergic reactions and exposure
For workers in healthcare and research fields, as well as other workers who are regularly required to wear disposable safety gloves, exposure to latex can result in sensitivity to latex and an eventual allergy. Therefore, reducing exposure is the most effective way of preventing the development of latex allergies and protecting workers from the allergic reactions that can occur.
There are several approaches to preventing latex glove allergies and reducing exposure to potentially harmful latex proteins. These include prohibiting the use of latex gloves in the workplace. However, this is by no means the only solution. For some workplaces, latex gloves are still preferred over nitrile or vinyl disposable gloves for a number of reasons, including price, fit and comfort, for example. Modern manufacturing processes mean that much less latex protein is present in latex gloves than in the past, making them less likely to cause sensitivity and latex allergy reactions in workers. Furthermore, in-line leaching and washing procedures have also resulted in lowering exposure.
Where latex allergies are still a risk factor for workplaces opting to use latex gloves, another option for reducing the likelihood of reactions and sensitivity is to reduce exposure to the latex protein. The proteins found in latex have been shown to attach to the powder (often corn starch or talc) which is often added to latex gloves for easier donning and removal. This powder serves as a ‘carrier’ for the proteins which cause latex allergies, meaning that more particles reach the airways. In order to reduce exposure of the airways to these proteins, and where non-latex gloves (synthetic rubber gloves) are not an option, powder free latex gloves should be used.
What are the alternatives to latex?
Where workplaces are able to substitute latex gloves for a synthetic rubber or alternative material, latex glove allergies and sensitisation to latex can be avoided. Common alternatives to latex include nitrile gloves, vinyl gloves and vinyl-nitrile blends. These synthetic rubber gloves contain no natural rubber latex and are far less likely to cause allergic reactions. In some rare cases, workers can experience a reaction to vinyl or nitrile gloves, however, these are far less likely to occur than latex glove allergies and sensitivity. As always, a proper risk assessment should be completed by the workplace before choosing a disposable safety glove.
At Unigloves, we’re dedicated to constantly innovating and enhancing our manufacturing process to meet the needs of our clientele. We understand that many workplaces are concerned with reducing the risk of a latex glove allergy occurring, whether triggered by a sensitivity developed in the workplace or by exposing those with an existing allergy. We also understand that there are many reasons why a workplace may still choose to use latex gloves, including the dexterity, elasticity and touch sensitivity offered by natural rubber latex, and the fact that they are naturally biodegradable.
In some sectors the use of latex cannot be avoided, for example electricians’ gloves. These are made specifically from latex because of its insulating properties and no alternatives are available because other materials do not possess the same levels of electrical insultation. That’s why we’ve improved our manufacturing process with the latest advances in technology to produce low-protein latex glove varieties, powder free latex gloves, high-quality, latex-like nitrile glove varieties, and vinyl glove alternatives.
Our extensive range means that no matter the results of your risk assessment, we’ve got a disposable safety glove solution for you. Browse our product guide to discover our full range of disposable gloves, our get in touch with our team for help selecting the perfect glove for your workplace.