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by Joshua Sargent
Gloves aren’t as widely used, but are just as essential — and far harder to manufacture. In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, a nitrile glove shortage may not seem as dire as a mask shortage. After all, no virus can “drill through the skin on your hand,” and masks are still the best safety precaution for most people.
However, these gloves are still a necessity for medical professionals, tattoo artists, food servers, and mechanics. Plus, they have various at-home uses including gardening, cleaning, and safety precautions for the immunocompromised. Right now, our supplies are dwindling — and the United States currently has no domestic manufacturers.
Outside of professional standards, nitrile gloves are sought at the consumer level for their strong resistance to puncture, protection against corrosion and chemicals, and hypoallergenic qualities — though some people are allergic, it’s far less common than an allergy to latex or other glove-making materials. We’ve also previously recommended them for gardening, and they’re great for working with fiberglass and harsh cleaning chemicals.
In other words, not everyone needs gloves — but the people who do need gloves are likely to need nitrile gloves. And they’re only going to get harder to find.
“The big problem with the nitrile glove space is that the barrier to entry is so great,” says Sean Kelly, Chief Procurement Officer for PPE of America. “For surgical masks, also known as 3-ply masks, for $150,000 you can get a machine to make them and you’re in business. … nitrile glove manufacturing is very complex. The raw materials are very difficult to access in some parts of the world.”
Right now, the only domestic manufacturer of nitrile gloves is The Showa Group with a factory in Fayette, Ala. And when it comes to amateur glove-making, well, that simply doesn’t exist.
In other words, the deluge of consumer-grade masks we’ve seen — from fashion companies to individuals starting their own side-hustles on Etsy — that won’t happen with nitrile gloves. And there’s already starting to be an impact.
“Before Covid, you could buy a box (of nitrile gloves) for $3 – $6,” says Kelly. “Go on Amazon now, and you’ll see the average price is $19 – $25, which is ludicrous.”
Exacerbating the problem is the lack of domestic manufacturers, as well as increasing pressure on our foreign providers: In July, the US banned two subsidiaries of the world’s largest glove manufacturer, citing “reasonable evidence of forced labor in the manufacturing process.”
Another problem is fraud, which is especially malignant during the desperation of a public health crisis. Such fraud was a huge problem in the early days of the pandemic: leading N95 mask manufacturer 3M was investigating 4,000 reports of N95 fraud in July, and the Bay Area faced consumer-level fraud in April.
While the biggest problems in procuring nitrile gloves will largely be happening at a corporate, wholesale level, the issues will trickle down to consumers quickly.
“I spoke to a senior buyer in a hospital, and they said that they had literally run out of large nitrile gloves. The glove situation is different with the masks, because with or without Covid, a lot of people need these gloves, but with Covid, they need them more than ever.”
What to do as a consumer
The reaction here is not to stockpile gloves if you don’t have a specific need for them — that will contribute to the shortage. However, if you use nitrile gloves for tasks that don’t specifically require medical grade gloves, you may want to consider vinyl or latex alternatives.
If you do need nitrile gloves in your home or in your place of work, it is prudent to consider strategies for conserving them, otherwise limiting their use, and building yourself a comfortable reserve without going overboard.