When handling historic zoological or botanical specimens, it has been advised to wear suitable PPE (personal protective equipment), especially a chemically resistant glove. Most recommended are nitrile/butadiene rubber (‘nitrile’ or ‘NBR’ or butyl rubber which provides appropriate protection against a range of chemicals.
Without conducting chemical analysis, it is largely guesswork as to what could be present on your collections. It is advisable to be cautious of material pre-dating the 1980s. At Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales (AC-NMW,) the collections have been extensively analysed and therefore a relatively strong profile of the collections has been pulled together, identifying significant concentrations of naphthalene, arsenic, lead and mercury.
Historically, arsenic, lead and mercury have been applied and re-applied to natural history collections since the 18th Century. These form particularly stable compounds and arsenic and mercury in particular can be absorbed through the skin.
As with most PPE it is essential that the right materials are used for the right task, it is also necessary that the PPE is maintained, and in the case of gloves, they should not adversely affect dexterity, have tears or punctures, or induce a biological reaction to the user. The gloves should also be disposed of after use, which can be a costly process.
Regardless of the quality of glove, it is frequently the personal choice of the user as to whether they do wear gloves or choose to wash hands more regularly instead. Key herbarium workers have stated that gloves hinder dexterity and can feel unpleasant after prolonged wear.(image copright of Benchmarks Technologies Ltd. Derma Shield)
Applying a barrier cream has proved very effective for AC-NMW staff and the one I recommend is Derma Shield®. It is reasonably priced, has a very long shelf life and has been worn by AC-NMW staff for a few months now. It is applied as a mousse, and rubs into the skin easily leaving no greasy residue. The film is an effective barrier to a broad range of chemicals and lasts up to five hours regardless of hand washing. So far staff have been very accepting of this new approach, whereas there was some resistance to the wearing of gloves.