“Yes, gloves protect against chemicals in general,” says Dr. Patricia Norris, a Portland, Ore.-based dermatologist who specializes in patch testing and skin allergies. “However, we know acrylic acrylates penetrate rubber gloves.”
Wait. So, nail techs shouldn’t wear rubber gloves to protect against salon chemicals? That’s not what Dr. Norris is saying. Let it be known she is an advocate for wearing gloves when it’s necessary and believes wearing gloves could benefit nail techs. However, how much they benefit techs will depend on how they are used and the sensitivities of the person using them.
What’s in Your Gloves
Natural rubber is a white, milky fluid that drains from the rubber tree plant, says Norris. This fluid became expensive to harvest and process, so it was analyzed and chemically recreated in the lab. Synthetic rubber has a similar molecular structure to natural rubber. Both the synthetic rubber (nitrile) and natural rubber (latex) need additives to mold, stretch, and otherwise perform as gloves. “Typically, if someone develops an allergy to gloves,” says Norris, “they are having a reaction to these additives.”
There are two types of rubber allergies. “When someone has an allergic reaction to latex, it is immediate,” says Norris. “This type of allergy can cause shortness of breath, swelling of the lips, anaphylaxis, and even death. A latex allergy can be a medical emergency.”
The allergen is the latex protein in the rubber. Latex protein may also be found in the powder inside latex gloves. When a person snaps a powdered latex glove on her hand, the powder escapes into the air. A person with a latex allergy may have a life-threatening reaction. “For this reason, I would not recommend their use in the salon,” says Norris. “You never know if a client has a true latex allergy. It’s not worth the risk.”
A second type of allergy is delayed and is called allergic contact dermatitis. This type of allergy occurs 24 to 48 hours after exposure to a particular chemical. The additives are usually the cause of this type of allergy. Both latex rubber and synthetic nitrile rubber gloves possess these additives and so either could cause allergic contact dermatitis. This type of rash looks like a poison oak rash: itchy, red and blistery on the tops of the hands and back of the wrists.
Why We Wear Gloves
Gloves offer protection from repeated and prolonged exposure to the allergens found in salon products. But hand-washing comes first. Techs and clients should wash their hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to cleanse their hand between clients. “I recommend Avagard D as an anti-bacterial,” says Norris. “It’s alcohol-based but very moisturizing, with no allergens on the ingredient list.”
Gloves can protect techs from skin exposure to the allergens in nail products. Of particular importance would be dust that contains uncured acrylic or gel, which can rest on the skin for extended periods of time during the work day. This exposure may increase the risk of developing an allergic contact dermatitis, so wearing gloves is a preventative step.
When to Wear Gloves
Because gloves protect from exposure to allergens in the dust, wearing them during the filing, shaping, and fine finishing steps of a nail service makes sense. Further, gloves protect the tech’s manicure, so it’s beneficial to wear them during any step of the mani or pedi where your polish could be compromised.
However, wearing gloves for extended periods of time, rubber or otherwise, does come with risks. Beyond increasing our chances to develop an allergy to the additives in gloves, covering our hands causes them to sweat. The repeated cycle of sweating, drying, and friction both from movement inside the glove and pulling them on and off all day can cause an extraordinarily painful, irritating skin reaction and even allergic contact dermatitis, which presents as a blistery, weepy rash on the tops of the hands and in the webbing of the fingers. Techs can guard against developing an allergic contact dermatitis by wearing gloves for short periods of time rather than during the entire nail service.