Protective Clothing – Disposable or Re-useable? | Our Blog Explains

disposable lab coat

Protective Clothing – Disposable or Re-useable?

Protective clothing is essential in any controlled environment whether it be a clean room, laboratory, manufacturing or processing environment. Whatever the case, protective clothing provides two basic functions:

• To protect the operator from the environment and/or
• To protect the product from contamination from the operator

The choice of whether to supply disposable protective clothing or re-useable laundered garments is not a simple matter of cost. There are many factors that should be taken into consideration in arriving at the optimum choice for coveralls, laboratory coats or other forms of protective clothing.

disposable lab coat

COST
Of course, one important benefit of disposable protective clothing is the purchase cost affordability. However, it is important to weigh full life cycle costs when making your decision. A true cost comparison should also include environmental, energy and transportation costs. It is a difficult task to fully evaluate the cost of re-useable clothing. To offset the relatively high cost of laundered clothing it may have to withstand 50 to 70 wash and sterilisation processes.

This not only has a significant cost implication, but also gradually diminishes wear comfort and the protective barrier effectiveness. The true cost of re-useable clothing should also factor in utility costs, staff, equipment maintenance and validation costs.

The cost of in-house specialised laundry, decontamination and sterilisation equipment is generally cost prohibitive.

HEALTH & SAFETY
Secondly we consider health & safety issues. There is no significance in the sequence I list the considerations, certainly not in order of importance. Health and safety of any individual should be of primary concern, particularly where hazardous liquid or bacteriological risks are involved. This applies not only to the protection of the operator within the controlled environment in which they are working. It equally applies to protecting the product from contamination which could affect the health of an individual who consumes the end product whether that be drugs, medicines, food or some form of medical device.

‘It will all come out in the wash’ – is that true? It is important to recognise that laundering garments does not fully remove contamination. It is a scientific fact that some will remain in the garment when it is re-used. Particularly difficult areas to effectively clean are collars, pockets and seams. It has also been known for laundries, in an effort to reduce costs, to mix clothing from different sources, and reduce wash temperatures to save energy costs.

As already mentioned, in order to offset the relatively high cost of re-useable clothing, it needs to withstand 50 to 70 decontamination cycles.
A number of studies have found that the protective barrier of the clothing diminishes with each cycle. To be truly confident of the garments’ effective protection, this should be tested by physical inspection and repellency testing after each decontamination cycle and the results logged. If this is not measured or at least risk assessed, then can you be sure that you are providing the necessary protection to your staff and your products?

ENVIRONMENTAL
With disposable protective clothing, considerably less energy and CO2 emissions are used to produce a single garment, compared to re-useable clothing. However, again full life cycle analysis is important here too. There are so many environmental factors to consider in relation to laundered garments, including management and validation, transportation (if the facility is not in-house), significant energy costs, water & detergents required during the decontamination process, re-packaging etc.

COMFORT
Disposable clothing can be perceived as being less comfortable, however, this is not necessarily the case. Modern materials are lightweight and breathable whilst still maintaining the protective barrier. Some laundered garments are manufactured from materials that retain moisture rather than breathing.

Category III, Type 5 & 6 Microporous coveralls or laboratory coats offer the optimum combination of both comfort with breathability. Look out for added comfort and fit features such as knitted wrist cuffs as opposed to elasticised cuffs. Elasticated cuffs when worn for longer periods can cut in to the skin causing discomfort. This may not sound significant, but when worn for long periods, these small features make a difference.

Wear comfort and the appearance of re-useable garments does suffer after repeated decontamination cycles.

VERSATILITY
The cost of disposables does allow for better flexibility and versatility, particularly where there may be high volume and change around of workers. Disposable garments are also available in sterile form at comparatively very little cost.

CONCLUSION
There is a distinct shortage of unbiased reports that clearly identify cost benefit between disposable garments and re-useable garments. Often the reports that exist are weighted in the direction of the author.

One thing is clear, in order to make an informed decision, a detailed life cycle cost analysis needs to take place considering all of the elements, and this needs to be carried out on a case by case basis.

So too with the health and safety risks and cross contamination risk of re-useable garments, these risks need to be assessed on a case by case basis, there is no one answer covers all.

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