The Development of Nitrile Gloves in the Medical Industry

Lorna Jackson
By Lorna Jackson

Lorna was Editor of Consulting Room (, the UK's largest aesthetic information website, from 2003 to 2021.

Many aspects of technology, medicine and science have moved on at a startling pace as innovations, inventions and discoveries have been made. From the 12 second flight of the first aeroplane a century or so ago, to the huge four engine jumbos that fly us to tropical climes.

It may seem almost ridiculous to compare the evolution of the nitrile glove to advances in aviation but, the development of the humble glove has probably been the fastest, the most dramatic and yet the most understated of scientific developments.

Saving lives through cutting infection rates, offering protection etc. the surgeon’s glove, like the first flight of aviation, has come through turbulent times but today, it is a huge business with pressures and challenges driving its development.

The first surgical gloves

Made from latex, the first examination glove made dramatic changes but, there are two issues with it: the increase in the perceived number of allergies to latex and the price - and impact – of using a product from a natural source, in this case the rubber tree. There are other issues too, including low cost labour to milk the rubber, along with the ongoing discoveries that rubber is an effective barrier to many things, but not to all chemicals or solvents.

The pressure was on to find an alternative that was still soft and comfortable to wear for extended periods, but also offered chemical resistance. Neither should this material be subject to price fluctuations.

There were three options;

i. Vinyl – a petroleum based film, its underlying chemical structure meant that vinyl gloves do not offer the resistance to chemicals needed. Likewise, there is a huge environmental concern with this material not bio-degrading fast enough. On the plus side, the material is cheap.

ii. Polychlorprene – gloves made from this material look and feel like latex, but are kinder to the skin and hands. It also has great chemical resistance properties but, as the most expensive option, it was not favoured.

iii. Nitrile – becoming the material of choice, nitrile exhibits outstanding chemical resistance properties, is exceptionally soft, is clean and makes ideal gloves for surgery and all kinds of settings. It is also relatively low cost too.

The discovery and introduction of nitrile as a potential material for gloves some 15 years ago, has created a booming industry. Worn by surgeons, beauticians, cleaners, anyone who needs protection but without losing dexterity, these gloves are in common, everyday use. You may have seen the purple glove – this is nitrile – or you may have seen the blue nitrile glove as these are now both commonly in use.

The future

Developments, research and experiments are now looking to create a thinner nitrile glove to replace the common-place latex glove. With increasing instances of allergy, as well as the environmental impact of using a natural resource, there has never been a greater need to create a hypo-allergenic alternative.

There are many advantages to using nitrile for gloves;

  • In terms of price, nitrile competes directly with rubber but, experts say, offers more advantages within this price set
  • Comfort and dexterity key for anyone wearing gloves and nitrile offers this; the introduction of ‘roughened’ fingertips on the gloves is a welcome innovation
  • Chemical resistance is higher than that offered by rubber
  • Sweating and irritation of the hands when wearing latex gloves are common complaints but nitrile dissipates heat better, leading to less irritation and sweating

There promises to be far more innovations of nitrile gloves in the future, with the material being touted as the one to replace rubber.


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