JAIC 1984, Volume 23, Number 2, Article 6 (pp. 153 to 158)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1984, Volume 23, Number 2, Article 6 (pp. 153 to 158)


Lucy Commoner

ABSTRACT—The author describes the requirements of conservators for hand protection against solvent and chemical action and other hazards, the desirable attributes of gloves and other protective mediums, their materials, proper use and care, and sources of supply.

THE SKIN IS THE LARGEST and one of the most fragile organs of the human body. Protection of the skin of the hands is of primary importance to conservators, both because of the manual nature of our work, and because of the hazards associated with many of the chemicals and processes used in conservation. Solvents and other chemicals can directly or indirectly cause local skin irritations, skin allergies, or skin cancer. Broken or irritated skin will allow chemicals to enter the bloodstream and cause serious damage to other organs of the body.

The skin is protected by a natural barrier of fats and oils. Solvents will dissolve this barrier, leaving the skin vulnerable to irritation and infection. A more serious condition, dermatitis (skin inflammation) can also develop. Some chemicals will actually destroy the tissue cells beneath the skin.

Skin allergies or allergic contact dematitis can also be caused by some chemical substances. This type of reaction varies greatly among individuals and may not occur until after years of exposure. Once an allergic reaction occurs, it can be aggravated by other materials that did not cause the initial problem.

Certain solvents and chemicals will be absorbed directly into the body through unbroken skin and have the same effect as if they had been inhaled. After penetrating the skin, chemicals are carried by the bloodstream to organs such as the liver and kidneys, where cumulative and irreversible damage can occur. The resulting chronic diseases may not be noticeable for years, at which time diagnosis becomes very difficult. Certain other chemicals are known or suspected to cause skin cancer.

Protective gloves provide one way of isolating the skin of the hands from a variety of hazards. Maximum hand protection is the result of a careful matching of applications and working conditions with glove characteristics. The use of an unsuitable, damaged, or worn glove can actually increase the hazards because skin absorption is enhanced through the confined skin contact within the glove. Gloves that do not match the job, do not properly fit, or are uncomfortable, are dangerous and discourage personnel from wearing protective clothing. Some of the factors to consider in choosing a glove are:

  1. Category of Hazard (some gloves offer protection in more than one hazard category):
  2. Amount of Flexibility and Dexterity: Unsupported gloves made of a single material are the most flexible.Supported gloves, made by coating a fabric support, are less flexible.
  3. Gripping Ability: Embossed gloves or those embedded with granules in the base coating improve gripping ability.
  4. Puncture and Abrasion Resistance: Supported gloves have greater durability.
  5. Permeability: Different glove materials have varying rates of permeation for each type of chemical. Unsupported gloves are either manufactured by a “cement” or “Latex” process. Cement dip gloves exhibit greater resistance to liquid and vapor permeation than Latex dip gloves.
  6. Design of Glove: Weight of gloveLength and type of cuff: A knit wrist cuff holds the glove well in place, but should not be used where quick removal is necessary, such as near a flame or where liquid chemicals might be absorbed through the cuff.Reversibility: A glove that fits on either hand provides two palms and better wear.Lining: A flock or knit lining provides some temperature protection and prevents irritation from sweat.Disposable or not


THE FOLLOWING IS only a general guideline for glove selection. The performance of a specific glove depends on its manufacture and the particular working conditions in which the glove is being used. There are no national standards for the testing and classification of work gloves. Efficacy of protection will be affected by the thickness of the glove, physical wear, chemical concentrations, temperature, and length of exposure. Gloves should be selected according to the manufacturer's own recommendation chart and should be tested in actual working conditions for the presence of liquid or vapor inside the glove. A simple test for permeation is to turn the glove inside out, fill one finger with the solvent in question, and seal it at the base of the finger. After three to four hours, the glove can be inspected for leaks or other changes. Visual damage to a glove does not necessarily correlate with permeation. Some manufacturers offer a trial order program where a sample quantity of gloves can be purchased on a guaranteed basis or free samples of gloves can be ordered for testing purposes.

Guideline for Chemical Resistance of Glove Materials

Proper care of protective gloves will increase their usable life. Some suggestions for the care of gloves are:

  1. Inspect gloves regularly for holes, tears, and other signs of wear. Pneumatic glove testers are available to inflate test rubber or plastic gloves. A water test can also be used.
  2. Wash gloves with soap and water before removing the gloves and hang to air dry with fingers up and cuff down.
  3. Personal protective equipment, such as gloves, should not be shared. Each individual should ideally have two pairs of each type of glove required which can be alternately worn.
  4. Aromatic and chlorinated hydrocarbons will cause swelling of most glove materials. If this occurs, the gloves should be switched for a fresh pair and the swollen gloves allowed to dry and return to normal.
  5. Gloves should not be stored near sources of heat, moisture, sunlight or other sources of ultraviolet radiation.

In addition to gloves, a second way to protect the hands is with the use of barrier creams. Barrier creams are applied to the hands before working with chemicals. Barrier creams are used to prevent solvents from removing the natural skin oils and to help clean the hands after working. These creams provide less protection than gloves and may not be practical in a conservation lab. Protective creams, however, can be used in conjunction with gloves in case any solvent accidently enters the glove.

There are two types of protective barrier creams. One is water soluble for protection against non-aqueous irritants such as paints, varnishes, and organic solvents. The other is a water resistant cream for use with water containing substances such as mild acids and dye baths. For maximum protection while working, barrier creams should be frequently washed off with soap and water and reapplied.

A third way to protect the hands from contact with dangerous materials is by using mechanical handlers, such as tweezers and swab sticks. It is important to be aware, however, that some solvents, such as morpholine and dimethylformamide (DMF) will be carried up through a wooden swab stick causing skin contact on an unprotected hand.

A final note of warning: some waterless hand cleaners used to remove paints and inks from the hands contain alkalis, solvents and abrasives that can be hazardous to the skin. If a waterless skin cleaner is used, it should be followed by washing with soap and water.


American Working Women's Supply Company

PO Box 100, Deer Park, NY 11729, (516)-667-6266

Dunn Products

37 S. Sangamon Street Chicago, IL 60607, (312)-666-5800

Edmont Wilson division of Becton

Dickinson & Co., 77 Walnut Street Cochoton, OH 43812


PO Box 588, 25 Loring Drive Framingham, MA 01701, (617)-875-3521

Lab Safety Supply

PO Box 1368, Janesville, WI 53547, (800)-356-6964

Magid Glove and Safety Manufacturing Co.

2060 North Kolmar Ave., Chicago, IL 60639, (800)-621-8010 or (312)-384-2070

Newtex Industries

Railroad Avenue, PO Box 25, Victor, NY 14564, (716)-924-9135

Norton Safety Products

PO Box 70729, Charleston, SC 29405, (803)-554-0660

Surety Rubber Co.

Box 92N3, Carrollton, OH 44615

protective clothing and gloves in women's sizes

also supplies Coverderm barrier cream for nonaqueous solvents

manufactures Zetex heat-resistant gloves


Work Glove Manufacturers Association

Box H, Grayslake, IL 60030, (312) 223–9222

National Industrial Glove Distributors Association

2510 Riva Road, Annapolis, MD 21401


Commoner, Lucy, “Resistance to Chemicals of Common Glove Materials” [information packet compiled for AIC General Session Health and Safety Hazards in Art Conservation, AIC 10th Annual Meeting, 1982].

Dionne, E.D., “How to select proper hand protection,” National Safety News vol. 119, no. 5 (May 1979):, pp. 44–53.

McCann, Michael, Artist Beware, New York, Watson-Guptill Publications, 1979. “Guidelines for the Selection of Chemical Protective Equipment,” published by Arthur D. Little under the sponsorship of the EPA, 1983.

McFee, D.W., “How well do gloves protect hands against solvents,” Journal of the American Society of Safety Engineers, May 1964.

“NIOSH Certified Personal Protective Equipment 76–145,” published by NIOSH, Division of Technical Services, 4676 Columbia Parkway, Cincinnati, OH 45226.

Petherbridge, Guy, ed., “Safety and Health in the Paper Conservation Laboratory,” The Paper Conservator, Vols 5 & 6, 1980–81.

Stellman, Jeanne and Daum, Susan, Work is Dangerous to Your Health, New York, Vintage Books, 1973.

“Work Gloves,” National Safety News, vol. 118, no. 1 (July 1978), pp. 78–82.

Section Index

Copyright � 1984 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works