Today, huge choices exist for lightweight polyurethane (PU) gloves offering outstanding dexterity and pliability from simple assembly jobs, to the handling of sharp plastic or steel objects. Gloves that act like a second skin in this way provide the user with unparalleled levels of ergonomics.

The first polyurethane glove product on the market was the BO500 (PU) from Showa in 1996, closely followed by the HyFlex Foam 11-899 (nitrile) from Ansell. The BO500 was developed by Showa primarily for the cleanroom market. However, due to its class-leading characteristics and Showa’s decision to enter into Europe, initially France, it soon found its way into the industrial market.

The BO500 was a revelation. Users overlooked the white colour and the high price, which was approximately €3.20 per pair (19 French francs at the time). All customers had to do, was try on the glove. No technical specs or any other hard sell was required: the glove’s attributes sold itself.

Ansell responded with a stopgap product called the HyFlex 11-575 (PU), while an alternative was made in-house which became known as the HyFlex Foam 11-800. Due to their marketing power, distribution network and direct sales force, Ansell soon became the dominant force globally, selling the HyFlex Foam predominantly, yet also offering the PU variant, depending on customer preference.

During the next ten years, the PU price decreased from €3.20 per pair in 1996 to as little as €1 per pair for a reasonable entry-level product.

For the consumer, it appeared to be an ideal situation. Over capacity, fierce competition, good products and prices tumbling – yet what they had not been told was that these PU gloves contained something harmful to human health: DMF.

Today, this fact is still largely unknown at the end-user level. However, within the glove industry, manufacturers are all in the works to eliminate DMF.

The DMF glove

Like other knitted and dipped gloves, DMF gloves are made using a hand mould which is dipped into a tank. With the use of polyurethane and an additional solvent called dimethylformamide (DMF) a chemical reaction is created which sees the polyurethane expand to encapsulate itself, usually in the palm area, around the liner.

These types of lightweight knitted / dipped gloves have evolved within the last decade from mere safety products to enhancing any level of industrial performance.

With this newfound wider acceptance, they have aided in the reduction of minor injuries leading many companies to see them as a worthy investment to reduce related costs.

The problem with DMF

The issues in the use of the solvent-based polyurethane glove relate to the health effects of inhalation and dermal (skin) contact with DMF for those who use this glove.

There are clear guidelines as to how long people should be exposed to DMF and, more importantly, the specific levels of exposure. These are more commonly referred to as occupational exposure limits, or OELs, which classify long-term exposure in the region of eight hours a day where exposure should not exceed ten parts per million, and short-term exposure in the region of 15 minutes a day, where exposure should not exceed 20 parts per million.

There are multiple issues in the manufacturing and use of the solvent-based polyurethane gloves relating to:

  • The levels of water used in the manufacturing process to clean as much DMF off the glove before it is packaged and exported to its final destination. To do this, the solvent-based polyurethane gloves are dragged through water in tanks that range anywhere between 50 to 80 metres.
  • The inhalation and contact with DMF for the people working in the factories manufacturing these solvent-based polyurethane gloves. This includes both inhalation and skin contact.
  • The health effects for users of this type of glove. These health effects relate not only to the direct skin contact where the glove covers the hand but also to other parts of the body should DMF become absorbed into the bloodstream

What does DMF do to the human body?

The scientific evidence is inconclusive regarding the magnitude of the effect of DMF on humans, as these gloves have only been used industrially for just more than a decade. However, laboratory animal research can shed some cautionary light on guidelines for human usage. In the laboratory animal, chronic exposure has shown reproductive and fetal effects.

When used on a regular and acute basis, the absorption of DMF through human skin may cause dermatological issues, liver problems, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and dizziness.

The risk of wearing contaminated gloves with very high levels of DMF during a standard working shift can be significant. If you use these types of gloves, it is essential to take note that the necessary testing and safeguards are put into place to ensure the safe levels of parts per million. The safe limits are ten parts per million for people using the glove for eight hours and 20 parts per million for uses of up to 15 minutes.

DMF has the potential to be the next asbestos. Used extensively by manufacturers and builders, asbestos was deemed to be safe. However, asbestos destroyed the health of many people and many lost their lives due to the cancer-causing elements inherent in asbestos.

What can you look for when choosing gloves?

Most of the larger gloves manufacturers have an environmental policy registered to the global ISO 14000 standard, which represents the core set of standards used by the organisation for designing and implementing an effective environmental management system. It is primarily at a macro-level and a good indicator of green credentials. But how does this translate into the glove you use?

The new EU REACH directive, explained later, can be seen as the next level of safety. However, the most important label to look for is the Oeko-Tex® 100 standard that certifies the product to be ‘skin friendly’.

Oeko-Tex® 100 standard

The Oeko-Tex 100 standard was introduced at the beginning of the 1990s as a response to the needs of the general public for textiles which posed no risk to health. "Poison in Textiles" and other negative headlines were widespread at this time, and indiscriminately branded all chemicals across the board used in textile manufacturing as negative and dangerous to health.

Up until the introduction of the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 there was no reliable product label for consumers to assess the human ecological quality of textiles, nor a uniform safety standard for companies within the textile and clothing industry which enabled a practical assessment of potential harmful substances in textile products. The Austrian Textile Research Institute (ÖTI) and the German Research Institute Hohenstein therefore jointly developed the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 on the basis of their existing test standards.

The testing and certification system of the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 satisfies the many and varied requirements consumers have of modern textile products, and at the same time takes into account the complex production conditions in the textile industry. The key objectives of Oeko-Tex are:

  • Manufacturing textile products of all types that are harmless to humans
  • Simplifying and accelerating terms of delivery for manufacturers and retailers who wish to offer their customers textile products which pose no risk whatsoever to health
  • A reliable product label for consumers who specifically aim to buy textiles which are harmless to their health

Confidence in textiles has been the motto of the independent test institutes of the International Oeko-Tex® Association since 1992. The philosophy and standard has found its way into the glove business with companies such as Marigold-Comasec and Uvex certifying some gloves within their product range. ATG goes further by certifying all products in the product range to the Oeko-Tex 100 standard, making it the only manufacturer within the glove business to have a full ‘skin friendly’ range.

‘Skin friendly’ products carry the Oeko-Tex confidence in textiles, which is a sure way to ensure that you are not exposed to harmful substances such as DMF.

Oeko-Tex affords the end-user the security that the glove is safe, but what guarantees are there for the protection of human health when the glove is being made? Does the new REACH directive have the answers?

The new EU REACH directive

REACH is a new European Community Regulation on chemicals and their safe use (EC 1907/2006). It deals with the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of chemical substances. This new law entered into force on 1 June, 2007.

The aim of REACH is to improve the protection of human health and the environment through the better and earlier identification of the intrinsic properties of chemical substances. At the same time, innovative capability and competitiveness of the chemical industry should also be enhanced. The benefits of the REACH system will come gradually, as more and more substances are phased into REACH.

This regulation gives greater responsibility to the industry to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on the substances. Manufacturers and importers will be required to gather information on the properties of their chemical substances, which will allow their safe handling, and to register the information in a central database run by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki.

The Agency will act as the central point in the REACH system. It will manage the databases necessary to operate the system, coordinate the in-depth evaluation of suspicious chemicals and run a public database in which consumers and professionals can find hazard information.

This regulation also calls for the progressive substitution of the most dangerous chemicals when suitable alternatives have been identified.

One of the main reasons for developing and adopting the REACH Regulation was that a large number of substances have been manufactured and placed on the market for many years, sometimes in very high amounts, and yet there is insufficient information on the hazards they pose to human health and the environment. There is a need to fill these information gaps to ensure that industry is able to assess hazards and risks of the substances, and to identify and implement the risk management measures to protect humans and the environment.

Within the gloves business, ATG has been an early adopter and is now fully compliant with the new REACH directive.

Is there more the authorities can do?

The directive for personal protective equipment, directive 89686/EEC, which belongs to a family of directives under article 114, is the directive intended to harmonise products, ensuring a high level of protection for citizens and free circulation throughout Europe.

The current revision of this directive for PPE, foreseen to be launched in 2013, is an opportunity to move further in the right direction by adding the Oeko-Tex 100 standard. It must, however, become part of the legislation in order to make it mandatory for manufacturers to develop products with this in mind. However, changes in legislation can take several years, so what should one do right now when evaluating and choosing a glove?

The essentials

If you want to be 100% certain of your safety, then avoid PU gloves. Indeed, the fit of the glove and price is compelling, but think of it this way: why would you pay to damage your health?

If you absolutely feel you must use a PU glove, then check the occupational exposure limits. The safe limits is ten parts per million for those using gloves for up to eight hours per day, and 20 parts per million for uses of up to 15 minutes. This information will generally not be provided by the salesperson, so contact the manufacturer’s technical department for clarification.

Look for the Oeko-Tex label. If you have the choice of two gloves and one has the label and the other does not, assuming they are of similar comfort / performance, select the glove with the Oeko-Tex label.

If there is no Oeko-Tex label, choose 100% nitrile gloves, as they do not contain DMF.

A quick way to get a list of all the suitable alternatives is to use a search engine. RadarGloves has specifically developed such an engine for the glove industry.