Dear Ms. Angel,
My hands have become red and irritated, and my skin is dry and cracking. I am worried that I might have a latex allergy but I don’t really know anything about them. Could that be what’s wrong? Is it serious? What are the best gloves to wear for piercing?
I appreciate your time and advice, and everything you do for the piercing industry.
It is critical that you address this matter immediately. Continued exposure increases the risks, and severe allergic reactions can develop suddenly. If you suspect you have a latex sensitivity, cease all contact with latex gloves and products, and consult a doctor or allergist right away.
According to the 2013 Association of Professional Piercers’ Procedure Manual:
“…Because latex allergies are actually sensitization reactions from overexposure to latex, and because latex is so pervasive in our home and work environments, prevention through limiting exposure is crucial. Those who come into frequent contact with latex through the skin or inhalation become sensitized, and may go on to develop full allergic reactions.”
Natural rubber latex comes from the sap of the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. During manufacturing, chemicals, preservatives, and stabilizers are added to make the material more stretchy, durable, and stable to heat. Reactions can occur to latex proteins and/or to the added chemicals.
The two primary routes of occupational exposure to latex are through skin contact and inhalation. Cornstarch powder is commonly used as a dry lubricant to prevent the surfaces from sticking. As gloves are worn, the proteins can leach from the material and stick to the powder particles. When gloves are changed, these fragments become airborne and spread latex allergens into the environment. Powder-free gloves are recommended by the CDC (i) to reduce the release of airborne proteins and decrease the likelihood of problems.
Chances of developing a latex reaction increase with frequent exposure, so workers who wear latex gloves are especially at risk.(ii) Research indicates that up to 15% of healthcare workers regularly exposed become sensitized (iii), and about half of those develop latex asthma, which can include severe respiratory symptoms (iv).
The complaints range from mild and localized, to eye and sinus issues, to lung problems, to severe systemic effects may that can progress rapidly to anaphylactic shock and even death(v).
These reactions to natural rubber products fall into three categories:
- Irritant Contact Dermatitis
- Type IV Delayed Hypersensitivity (also called Allergic Contact Dermatitis)
- Type I Immediate Hypersensitivity (also called IgE/histamine mediated allergy)
Most adverse reactions are the less serious form: Irritant Contact Dermatitis, which is not a true allergy as it does not involve the immune system. Symptoms can include local itching, redness, rash, and swelling. This causes rough, dry, scaly skin, sometimes with weeping sores. The condition is worsened by sweating and friction under the gloves.
Note that irritant contact dermatitis and the symptoms you describe may also occur from frequent handwashing with harsh soaps and use of hand hygiene products containing alcohol. Fragrances, colorants, preservatives, and emulsifiers in soap can dry and inflame skin. Concentrated soaps can be especially troublesome and should be avoided. Use a milder soap with no or low Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS—an irritating chemical surfactant/foaming agent). Make sure to dry your hands thoroughly before donning gloves, and apply moisturizing skin care products such as cream or lotion regularly. Washing hands with soap and water immediately before or after using alcohol-based products is unnecessary and could lead to dermatitis(vi).
The risk of developing an allergic reaction to latex is higher when contact is made with broken skin. So even if you’re not suffering from a latex issue yet, your current condition can lead to one. And, it is possible that your situation was caused by overexposure to soap and latex gloves, so you may need to change both.
An actual latex allergy occurs when an individual’s immune system reacts to the normally harmless proteins contained in natural rubber latex (or the chemicals added during manufacturing), as if they were invaders like viruses or bacteria.
Type IV, Allergic Contact Dermatitis, is the most common immune reaction to latex. The symptoms are similar to the irritant form, but the cause is different. Conjunctivitis, runny nose, and asthma-like complaints are also possible. As with irritant dermatitis, it is highly recommended that you address the problem quickly to reduce the risk of developing a more serious reactive condition.
The most dangerous allergic reaction, Type I, Immediate Hypersensitivity, can produce hives or swelling, nausea and vomiting, drop in blood pressure, dizziness, confusion, loss of consciousness, rapid or weak pulse, difficulty breathing, and ultimately anaphylactic shock and death.(vii)
Therefore, if a latex reaction is verified, it is important to avoid direct contact with all products that contain it, including outside of work. In the studio, other items that contain latex include adhesive tape, elastic bands, some types of autoclave wrap, and even the soft handles of tools and coverings on ballpoint pens. Everyday objects such as socks, underwear, water bottles, cling wrap, toothpaste and toothbrushes can also contain latex (viii).
In addition to personally avoiding latex, encourage your co-workers to use an alternative glove material to minimize airborne particle exposure. This has been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of developing latex allergies in occupational settings.
If you are an employee, according to OSHA mandates, your employer must provide you with a safer glove option if you exhibit symptoms of latex sensitivity or allergy. Fortunately, fabulous alternatives to latex gloves are now available. The choices and quality have greatly improved in recent years. Nitrile is one of the popular substitutes that contains no latex proteins, but it has curing agents and other chemical ingredients that could still cause sensitivities or allergies.
I had been primarily using NeoPro’s powder-free chloroprene textured exam gloves, but my new favorites are NeoGrene Chloroprene Powder Free Exam Gloves by EcoBee(ix). They are durable, flexible, easy to don, and feel a lot like latex—in a good way. The fingertips are textured for enhanced grip performance. They’re significantly superior to the nitrile gloves I first used as a latex alternative years ago. They come packaged with 200 gloves per box to reduce waste and maximize storage space.
I also appreciate that this company manufactures their gloves with zero direct skin exposure to ensure hygiene. The wearer is the first person to come into contact with their products. They also have their “BeeGreener Campaign”—a pledge to reduce environmental impact by using earth-friendly and recycled materials in their products and packaging.
Non-latex glove alternatives are more expensive, but they are certainly worth it, depending on your circumstances. They vary widely by brand, material, fit, feel, and cost. Most suppliers offer samples so you can try before buying.
“Handy” tip: Though I wear extra small gloves for piercing, I find that my skin fares much better when I use a larger size for set up, clean up, and other studio work that does not require maximum dexterity. For some tasks, I’m comfortable with a double upsize and wear a medium. My skin breathes better and I experience less irritation if I reserve the wearing of fitted gloves only when I really need them—during piercing procedures.
Address your symptoms now, as severe latex allergies can also bring on food allergies and ultimately result in the loss of your career.