Latex allergies can be – inconvenient, to say the least – especially since so many products contain it. Medical and dental equipment, pencil erasers, sanitary napkins, pacifiers, rubber bands, condoms, and many other everyday products can contain latex, creating a hostile environment to those with sensitivity to the material. This also includes those working in the body art industry and those that patronize such establishments because of the gloves worn in accordance with Universal Precautions.
What is Latex?
Natural latex rubber (NLR) is the cloudy, white sap exuded from beneath the bark of the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). Synthetic latex is made from petroleum, acetylene, coal, natural gas, or oil.
Both natural and synthetic latex can cause allergic reactions, but since both are caused by a reaction to a different material, it’s important to know the difference.
Latex Hypersensitivity – Who is at Risk?
A hypersensitive – or allergic – reaction to latex can happen to anyone, but some people are at a higher risk than others. As the allergic reaction is cumulative, and the risk increases over time after prolonged exposure, people with occupations or medical conditions that require exposure to latex are at the highest risk.
- Those in the Medical Field: In addition to latex gloves, many medical products contain NLR. Urinary catheters, tourniquets, adhesive tape, bandages, and bulb syringes to mention just a few.
- Those in the Body Art Industry: Tattoo artists and piercers go through multiple sets of gloves every day, and every snap of the gloves (putting them on and taking them off) creates an invisible cloud of NLR particles in the air.
- Those Who Have Undergone Multiple Surgeries: Patients with medical conditions that require many surgeries – and especially those with Spina Bifida – have a high risk of latex sensitivity development.
- Those Who Work in the Latex Industry: People who work in factories where latex products are manufactured are at very great risk of developing a latex allergy.
Also, due to some kind of connection between the proteins of certain foods and the proteins that exist in NLR sap, those who have some or all of the following food allergies are also more highly prone to also having a sensitivity to the proteins in latex:
- Passion Fruit
Latex Allergies Vs. Rubber Chemical Allergies
A true latex allergy is caused by a sensitivity to the proteins that exist in the naturally derived sap from the rubber tree. A rubber chemical allergy is a sensitivity to the chemicals used to manufacture and process either natural or synthetic latex products.
Rubber chemical allergies come on slower and tend to cause less severe symptoms. Contact dermatitis occurs in the area of skin directly exposed to the rubber and can be treated by a dermatologist. These symptoms can appear hours or even days after exposure, which is known as a Type IV reaction.
Latex allergy symptoms are usually more severe (known as a Type I reaction) and manifest more quickly after exposure:
- Watery, itchy eyes
- Sneezing, Coughing, Runny Nose
- Rash or Hives
- Shortness of breath, chest constriction
- Anaphylactic shock
Once a latex allergy has developed to the point of a severe reaction, a person is forced to change their life significantly or risk life-threatening symptoms. The CDC website shares the story of a nurse who had to quit her job and now can’t enter the dentist’s office or go to a restaurant without calling ahead to make sure they don’t use latex gloves.
It is much easier to take steps now to prevent yourself from getting to this point than living a severely restricted life afterward.
If you think you may have a latex allergy but continue having problems after switching to a synthetic latex product, it’s likely that you actually have a rubber chemical allergy. If you experience hay fever or asthma-like symptoms after being in direct or indirect contact with latex, this is more than likely a latex allergy. Your doctor can do a blood test (RAST) to determine if this is the case.
Unfortunately, although your doctor can help you diagnose a latex allergy, there is no cure or preventative treatment other than avoidance. Avoiding such a widely used product is easier said than done, but most people find that they experience relief as long as they avoid the worst offenders. In the body art industry, that would be the latex glove.
Latex Gloves and Powder Coatings
Gloves are worn by tattoo and piercing artists to protect themselves and their clients from cross-contamination. This is in accordance with Universal Precautions, a sterile chain of events determined by the CDC to prevent the spread of blood diseases and infection.
But it’s not just the latex in the gloves that causes problems. It’s actually the powders used to coat the gloves – thus making them softer and less sticky – that are the biggest culprit in creating greater exposure to latex proteins. Talc, cornstarch, and other dry powders have been used over the years to coat latex gloves. The cheaper the powder, the more abrasive they tend to be. The more abrasive they are, the more NLR proteins attach themselves to the powder particles. The more proteins that are attached to the particles, the more dangerous the invisible cloud becomes each time a glove is donned or removed.
Latex gloves are used by many – probably most – tattoo and piercing artists, because they are effective, comfortable, cost-efficient, and widely available. As long as they personally do not have a problem with latex, most artists don’t see a need to switch to a non-latex brand. Some aren’t willing to incur the higher price of alternate products, and some may fear that substitutes aren’t as effective in preventing contamination. This is not necessarily the case, as long as you do some research into what you are purchasing.
Latex Glove Alternatives and what to do if you have a latex allergy
Fortunately, there are safe substitutes to latex gloves, and many-body art establishments are starting to realize the need to switch over for their own, and their customer’s, safety. If you have a rubber allergy, you may need to experiment with several different materials and brands to find one that you don’t have a reaction to. Most artists who have switched to latex-free gloves seem to prefer Nitrile. This comparison chart (pdf) lists the different materials used to make non-latex gloves and how they measure up.
Pat Fish, one of the world’s most talented Celtic tattoo artists, is also a victim of latex hypersensitivity, which at one point prevented her from being able to attend tattoo conventions.
She eventually found ways to make accommodations, such as asking for a booth space near the front door, for instance, so she is in a stream of fresh air, not in a cloud of latex dust. She wrote a great article about her personal experience with the allergy, which was published in a 1999 issue of Skin & Ink Magazine.
Comparing Apples to Apples
In her article, Pat explains that not all Nitrile gloves are created equal. She states, “I emailed all forty companies I could find on the web who listed themselves as suppliers of Nitrile. I asked them all for samples. Nine replied, and…of the few who did send samples, not all of them were identified as medical quality. Beware what may seem like a good price on nitrile, because if the glove is not clearly marked for EXAM use it may be industrial or food industry grade and NOT have the FDA class one medical device 510K status. No gloves are actually ‘approved’ by the FDA, but to be labeled exam quality they must pass more stringent quality control testing.”
What to Do if You Have Latex Hypersensitivity
If you think you have a latex allergy, the first thing you need to do is get a positive diagnosis from your doctor. Once you have been accurately diagnosed, you will need to:
- Learn as much about the condition as possible, knowing what can trigger symptoms and how to avoid latex products.
- Advise your tattoo and/or piercing artist of your condition and request a latex-free room for any procedures.
- Avoid latex in any shape or form whenever possible
- Carry an epinephrine injection pen for reaction emergencies
- Wear a medical ID bracelet stating your condition
If you are a tattoo or piercing artist and you haven’t yet made the switch to non-latex gloves, now may be the time to give it serious consideration. You may be risking your future career status and your health by continuing to use the volatile latex glove.