Rubber glove industry is generally considered ‘recession-proof’ as demand for rubber gloves is for all times. The global demand in 2018 is estimated at 268 billion gloves with an expected annual growth of 15%. This growth is thanks to the increasing awareness among people on the need for better healthcare and safety and higher hygiene standards besides progressive healthcare reforms in emerging markets

Rubber glove usage had its beginning way back in 1890. Here goes the history. In the year, Caroline Hampton, the Chief Nurse of Johns Hopkins Hospital of Baltimore, USA, developed continued skin reaction to mercuric chloride that was used for asepsis. At the request of William Halsted, the resourceful medical innovator, the Goodyear Rubber Company produced thin rubber gloves for hands protection. As these gloves proved to be a very effective barrier protection device for hands against chemicals as well as harmful bacteria, Halsted implemented the use of sterilized medical gloves at Johns Hopkins in 1894.

Global demand growth

Rubber gloves are used primarily in the medical, dental, industrial, pharmaceutical and food handling sectors. Medical gloves, used during medical examinations and procedures, help prevent cross-contamination between caregivers and patients. Since glove major Ansell Healthcare started large-scale production of NR latex medical gloves in 1964, the demand for gloves has shot up tremendously, especially after the outbreak of HIV in the 1980’s, as hospitals and healthcare organizations around the world implemented the use of gloves for better healthcare and safety and as an effective device to reduce the spread
of germs. Soon, many other companies started production and distribution of gloves. At present, glove use is practised virtually in all the countries across the world.
Global demand growth for medical gloves is spurred by factors such as improving world economy (global growth is projected to edge up to 3.1% in 2018), rise in ageing population requiring sustained healthcare and medical check-up, rising awareness about infection control benefits, progressive reforms and the consequent restructuring of healthcare systems in developed countries, heavy investment for specialized patient care etc. Precautions against the recurrence of epidemic-level diseases such as H1N1, SARS, Ebola, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in South Korea and the most recent outbreak of Nipah virus in Kerala, India, have also accelerated the demand growth. Even the less developed regions are making steady progress in patient care. There is enhanced awareness in the developing regions about better infection control and the need for hand hygiene. Demand for gloves in the industrial, household and other sectors too is going up with the steady economic advancement of the developing regions.

Material for glove making

Disposable medical gloves are made of different polymers including natural rubber latex, nitrile rubber, polyvinyl chloride and neoprene. NR latex gloves, traditionally used all over the world, offer more comfort and dexterity. They are used in manufacturing, healthcare, laboratory, and food industries. According to the renowned latex dipping technologist David Hill, natural rubber latex obtained from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) is in many ways an ideal glove material. It has good tensile and tear strengths, is elastic and has a relatively low modulus which can be important in reducing hand fatigue for the wearer, he says.
However, allergic reactions triggered by proteins in natural rubber latex posed a big problem. Reports of allergic reactions to natural rubber latex were first documented in the late 1970’s. The first fatal reaction was reported in 1991. Following these reports, Johns Hopkins Hospital, where latex surgical gloves were first used, banned their use altogether in 2008.
Thanks to ongoing search for a safer alternative raw material for glove manufacturing, a few synthetic latices devoid of protein were identified. Among them, nitrile latex was found to be more effective due to some of its inbuilt advantages over natural rubber latex. Nitrile rubber does not cause protein allergy and so nitrile gloves proved a good option for those who experienced latex allergies. Nitrile gloves have more puncture resistance and are considered perfect for medical applications – disposable examination, surgeries and other cleanroom uses. Moreover, it is claimed to be less costly and is generally resistant to oil, fuel and chemicals.
Nitrile latex gloves soon became very popular in many countries, especially in regions like the US and Europe where people are identified as allergic to latex protein. These regions together now account for the major chunk of glove use globally. Many in the Asian region too have started using nitrile gloves on a regular basis on account of their higher efficiency in puncture and chemical resistance and sensitivity almost similar to that of NR latex gloves.

Powdered & powder-free medical gloves

There are two main types of medical gloves — Examination and Surgical. Surgical gloves have more precise sizing with better precision and sensitivity. Examination gloves are available as either sterile or non-sterile, while surgical gloves are generally sterile.
Then, there are powdered and powder-free medical gloves. Medical gloves powdered with cornstarch for lubrication (replacing tissue-irritating Lycopodium powder and talc), are easier to put on the hands. However, even cornstarch can hinder healing if it gets into tissues during surgery. Corn starch was also found to have potential side effects such as inflammatory reactions and granuloma and scar formation. So, powder-free gloves are preferred during surgery and other sensitive procedures.

FDA bans powdered gloves

With the advent of non-powdered medical gloves, there was wide-spread clamour to eliminate powdered medical gloves. Following this, the healthcare systems in Germany and the United Kingdom eliminated their use in 2016. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also passed a rule on December 19, 2016, banning the use of all powdered medical gloves which became effective on January 18, 2017.
Powder-free medical gloves are used in medical clean-room environments where the need for cleanliness is most essential. In the absence of powder, they are made easy to don treating them with chlorine. Though chlorination affects some of the beneficial properties of latex, the process reduces the quantity of allergenic latex proteins.

Other fields of glove use

There are many other fields such as factories and industrial establishments (as industrial gloves), households etc. where gloves are commonly used. Electrical gloves protect the workers’ hands from cuts, bruises and electrical shocks. Gloves of synthetic latices such as neoprene and polyisoprene, which are resistant to most of the chemicals, are generally used by people working in the chemical industry. Clean room gloves are preferred in the electronics industry that makes sensitive components for luxury cars, smart phones, fighter jets etc. However, nitrile gloves have penetrated the cleaning segments too of late.
Household gloves are commonly used for cleaning up in shops, cafes and public places besides in the food serving industry to maintain hand hygiene. Gloves made of poly vinyl chloride (PVC) are preferred in the food industry in many regions. Veterinary gloves of rubber or plastic are used by the veterinary personnel. Demand in the industrial, household and other sector gloves too is also going up these days.

Major producers

Rubber glove industry is mainly concentrated in the Asian region. Malaysia, acclaimed as the hub of the world rubber glove industry, has the No. 1 global status in glove production and export. Global glove majors such as Top Glove, Kossan, Supermax, Hartalega Holdings etc. are all based in Malaysia. Modernization and automation have led to quantum leaps in the productivity and production of these companies. The Malaysian rubber glove industry is a multi-billion Ringgit industry which has been enjoying consistent growth since 1991. The country is now exporting rubber gloves to over 195 countries worldwide. The quality of production and competitive price have earned them many customers across the world.
Recognizing glove manufacturing as a priority sector, the Malaysian Government provides incentives and infrastructure support for production and marketing of gloves. The Government-sponsored Malaysian Rubber Export Promotion Council (MREPC) offers all help to promote the sale of gloves in the overseas markets. Abundant domestic availability of natural rubber latex is another advantage. Nitrile butadiene latex is produced locally by a multinational. Requirement of rubber chemicals is met through local production and import. The Malaysian machinery makers are reputed in manufacturing the most modern latex processing and glove production machinery.

Other producers

The second largest glove producer is Thailand, though far behind Malaysia in output. The country, the world’s largest producer of natural latex, has a fairly good domestic demand to sustain the glove industry. The requirement of nitrile latex, besides some of the machinery and chemicals are imported. A significant portion of the production of both nitrile gloves and NR gloves is exported. There is substantial production of synthetic gloves in the US; but it meets only a minor portion of the demand. About 70% of the demand is met by import. Japan, the top glove user in Asia, produces both NR and nitrile gloves; but demand far exceeds production, necessitating large scale imports, especially of the nitrile variety. Japan is a sub market for the large glove producers in Malaysia. China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Pakistan and Vietnam are comparatively smaller producers.

Major markets

While the US, Europe and Japan are the major export markets for the Malaysian nitrile gloves, NR latex gloves are mainly exported to markets in the Asian region. The market potential for gloves is growing in the Latin American and African regions as well. In the United States, synthetic nitrile gloves are mainly used in the healthcare sector and in many industrial establishments. Gloves of natural latex, vinyl polymer, chloroprene and polyisoprene are also used in the US; but they account for only a minor portion of the demand segment. The US Food and Drugs Administration has laid down stringent regulations on gloves imported into the country to ensure better barrier protection.
Europe is another major market for gloves, especially for the nitrile gloves. Most of the countries in the region have implemented regulations, setting quality standards for gloves imported from outside. Almost three-fourth of the gloves used in the region is made of nitrile latex.
Japan, the top glove user in Asia, also has implemented regulations on imported gloves. Both NR and nitrile gloves are produced in the country, but domestic production is far below demand necessitating large-scale imports, especially of the nitrile variety. Japan is a sub market for the large glove producers in Malaysia.

Growth will continue

The growth of the rubber glove industry has been exponential and continues braving out all odds of the world’s economic situation. The Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association (MARGMA) has estimated the global demand for rubber gloves in 2018 at 268 billion, with an expected annual growth of 15%. The Malaysian rubber glove industry is working hard to catch up with the rising global demand. Malaysia will supply 60% to 65% of the global demand for rubber gloves. This is equivalent to about RM18.8 billion or 168.8 billion gloves for 2018.
Really impressive for a country that is acclaimed as the hub of the world rubber glove industry!
The Malaysian glove manufacturing majors also share the same views regarding the industry’s performance in the near future. They feel that the lingering economic slowdown can never put a brake to their swelling sale orders as people are not going to cut back on gloves. The healthcare industry, in fact, should do better in view of more people seeking medical treatment and health checks.