Types of Personal Protective Equipment

Instructor: Emily Ketchel

Emily has taught nursing assistant students and has a bachelor's degree in Botany and Nursing.

In this lesson, you will learn about the different types of personal protective equipment and how they are used to prevent sickness from spreading from person to person.

What is Personal Protective Equipment?

Have you ever been in a hospital or doctor's office and saw someone donning layers until they were covered head to toe? They likely went immediately into a room and emerged with some or none of what they had on before. What they covered themselves with is known as personal protective equipment.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is used to prevent exposure to infectious material. In other words, it acts as a barrier to stop the spread of germs. Infectious material can spread through airborne, droplet, and/or through contact routes.

  • An airborne route is when small particles that you can't see float in the air. When diseases are airborne, you can breathe them in and potentially get sick.
  • Germs in droplet form can be transmitted through splashes. When you cough or sneeze, you are spreading contaminated droplets.
  • Infection through contact comes from contaminants that you can see, such as diarrhea or vomit. These examples can also be considered droplets if they are in liquid form. Because of this, PPE used for both routes is similar.

PPE Types

The different types of personal protective equipment are:

  • Face Shields
  • Gloves
  • Goggles and Glasses
  • Gowns
  • Head Covers
  • Masks
  • Respirators
  • Shoe Covers

Face shields cover the face with a clear plastic screen. They protect the face from infectious droplets and contact with contaminated material. Without a face shield, germs can gain access through the mucous membranes--the mouth, eyes, and nose.

A healthcare provider will wear a face shield when body fluids could potentially get in the face. This could happen when they are cleaning an infected wound. The cleaning fluid could splash into the provider's face and spread the infection to them.

A healthcare provider wears gloves while giving a shot.
Getting a shot

Gloves cover the hands and wrists, protecting the skin from contact and droplet exposure. Gloves are probably the most widely used type of PPE.

Healthcare workers routinely use gloves when giving a patient a shot. Gloves will protect the patient, as well as the person giving the shot, from spreading germs through open skin.

In the healthcare setting, latex or nitrile gloves are usually used. Latex can be favored over nitrile because it has a tighter fit. On the other hand, latex allergies are becoming more common. Many providers are switching to nitrile gloves for this reason, in addition to their added benefit of resistance to punctures.

Goggles and glasses protect the eyes from infectious droplets and, in some cases, from contact with infectious agents. Goggles fit securely around the eyes, while protective glasses only protect the front and sides of the eyes. Both of these options allow prescription glasses to be worn underneath.

Remember the last time you went to the dentist? One of the things they do before starting a procedure is put goggles or protective glasses on you as well as them. This is to prevent a potentially contaminated substance from entering the eyes.

Gowns protect clothing and skin from droplets and contact with infectious material. Some are placed over clothing and tied in the back, adequately covering the arms and torso and part of the legs. Others are more like a long drape or suit that covers most of the body.

If someone is wearing a gown, they are expecting to be in close contact with infectious material and will likely cover other parts of their body with PPE.

Head covers protect the spread of germs through droplet or contact routes. Potentially infectious material can travel to the head as well as from the head. When all of the hair is tucked inside a head covering, germ transmission is reduced.

If you have experience with surgeries, you know that staff have their heads covered. This is to prevent any form of contaminant from traveling to the surgical patient and potentially making them sick.

Masks (otherwise known as surgical masks) protect the nose and mouth from airborne and droplet contaminants. They fit snuggly and are attached by elastic straps or ties behind the head. Masks can stop some germs from spreading, but fine infectious particles can go through the filter in the masks. If masks become soiled or damp, they should be changed.

Masks can be used to protect the wearer, or, if the wearer is sick, to protect those around them. For example, have you been in a public place and saw someone wearing a mask? The reason for this could have been to protect the people around them from whatever germs or sickness they have. Or, it may have been to protect themselves if they have a compromised immune system.

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