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What’s so interesting about how disposable gloves are made? Quite a lot, it seems.
We frequently get questions about what’s involved in making gloves. So here goes with an easy-to-read summation of how the process works.
There are four primary materials used in making disposable gloves: nitrile butadiene rubber, natural rubber latex, polyvinyl chloride, and polyethylene. Various specialty gloves incorporate other materials, but those four cover everything that Zoomget sells.
Latex is the oldest and most familiar material. In the glove world, it goes back to 1889 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. William Stewart Halstead, the hospital’s first surgeon in chief, is credited with developing the first surgical glove. He petitioned the Goodyear Rubber Company to make gloves because his surgical team’s hands were irritated by the chemicals used.
Latex was the standard for the better part of a century, with disposable gloves becoming the norm in the 1960s. Increased use of latex gloves, particularly during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, raised awareness of latex allergies and brought about the introduction of vinyl and nitrile gloves by the mid-1990s. Those two materials, which contain no plant proteins to cause allergic reactions, have largely supplanted latex, but it still has a devoted following in some uses.
Where latex comes from
Latex concentrate, the raw material used in manufacturing, comes from Hevea brasiliensis, also known as the Pará rubber tree. It originated in the Amazon rainforest and was introduced to Southeast Asia, Africa, and elsewhere in the 1870s. Today most of the world’s natural rubber comes from plantations in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
Rubber trees are usually ready to be tapped after about seven years of growth. Thin strips of bark are removed from the tree, which makes the milky-white sap run downward into a cup. After about six hours, the fluid stops, usually filling a gallon bucket.
Because of its high water and non-rubber content—about 70% is water, protein, sterol glycosides, resins, ash, and sugars—the latex is concentrated and stabilized. The latex is mixed with processing chemicals including sulfur, zinc oxide, accelerators, pigments, stabilizers, a de-webbing agent, and antioxidants. It matures for 24 to 36 hours to become ready for dipping.
Where nitrile, vinyl come from
The processes for creating nitrile and vinyl materials is similar. The nitrile butadiene rubber (NBR) used for nitrile gloves is a copolymer, which is a substance derived from the bonding of molecules. In the case of NBR, the two parts are butadiene and acrylonitrile, which chemists combine using a process known as copolymerization.
These molecules provide specific advantages for the gloves: Acrylonitrile enhances the chemical resistance, while butadiene creates flexibility and tear resistance.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) must be produced at a polymer production facility through the polymerization of vinyl chloride monomers. The raw PVC material then receives a plasticizer, making it soft and pliable; otherwise, the PVC would be rigid, as it is when used to form pipe. It is then sent to a glove production facility.
Once the synthetic materials are prepared, they are added to the production process. With a few exceptions—primarily involving washing and chlorination to remove latex proteins—this process is mostly the same as the steps for manufacturing latex gloves.
The last steps of the cycle include testing the gloves, then boxing and shipping them.
Poly is a process all its own
Polyethylene is the most affordable glove material and is used primarily in the food service industry.
It is a polymer that is synthesized from ethylene and a thermoplastic that is formed into various shapes as it cools from a liquid state to a solid state.
Two polyethylene sheets are seamed and sealed with heat to create disposable gloves. Because poly gloves are not dipped like latex, nitrile and vinyl gloves, they are not impervious to liquids. Vinyl gloves are a suitable alternative for food services tasks where liquids are present.
On the production line