Your Health

Why Food-Prep Gloves at Restaurants Might Make Eating Out Extra Unhealthy

What you can do about the plastic gloves used to handle and serve food that are contaminating your restaurant meal

Despite all of the healthy eating Instagrammers we follow, we all eat out sometimes. Because life, job, kids…exhaustion. Sometimes grabbing something to eat, whether fast food or take out, is the only thing keeping you going. Plus it’s healthier than eating a bowl of cereal for dinner, right?

But the more we found ourselves eating out, the more we wondered: other than perhaps added salt and fat, by eating out, are we exposing ourselves to chemicals? There are a lot of steps behind the scenes before you get your melty sandwich or burger. One of these steps is that food service workers handle and serve your food with plastic gloves, some of which are made with vinyl—which can contain toxic chemicals called phthalates (THAL-eights).

So, we launched a large study of phthalates in food service gloves—collecting over 120 gloves to sample and test. We discovered that two-thirds of the popular fast-food restaurants we visited were using vinyl (or PVC) gloves, which can contain phthalates, and one out of seven vinyl gloves tested contained phthalates.

Why does this matter? Well, phthalates aren’t actually chemically bound to vinyl, which means they can easy leach into our meal from food-handling gloves. As a result, food is most Americans’ top route of exposure to phthalates, and dining out is associated with the highest exposures. And you definitely don’t need or want these chemicals in your food.

Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, meaning they change the way that hormones work in our bodies. Exposure to phthalates in early life is linked to genital malformations in baby boys, ADHD diagnoses in children, and infertility later in life. Children and pregnant women are most vulnerable to exposure—and a 2014 U.S. government studyfound that up to 725,000 American women of childbearing age are exposed daily to dangerous levels of phthalates.

But there’s an easy solution if you don’t want these chemicals to get into your food from these gloves: Restaurants can require their employees to frequently wash hands with soap and water, or use polyethylene gloves, which do not contain phthalates and are widely available and affordable.

Because phthalates are invisible, tasteless, and odorless, there’s no easy way to tell if vinyl gloves contain these chemicals. Unless companies want to test every vinyl glove for phthalates before a worker puts them on, the only way to keep phthalates from contaminating food from gloves is for restaurants to stop using vinyl gloves altogether.

So, if you, like most people, enjoy dining out and would rather not worry about toxic chemicals in your food, what can you do about it?

Unfortunately, the FDA has been slow to reassess its stance on allowing phthalates in food-packaging materials even though there’s plenty of scientific evidence for their harm—so we’re asking restaurants to protect their customers’ health and make this change themselves. You can take action by calling on McDonald’s, the top restaurant in the U.S. by sales, to be a market leader and stop using vinyl gloves in their restaurants. Even if you don’t eat at McDonald’s regularly, you’ll be impacted by their actions—because McDonald’s has the highest sales of any restaurant, they have the market power to shift the whole industry.

Furthermore, many African-American and Latino communities often lack access to healthier food options, making this an issue of environmental injustice. We’re calling on McDonald’s to lead on this issue because we believe all children and families deserve toxic-free food to eat.


It’s not all bad news though! We found polyethylene gloves (AKA gloves that don’t contain phthalates) being used at Starbucks, Panera Bread, and Subway locations we visited, which means there’s a willingness to use safer glove options in the food industry.

Dining out should mean a relaxing, enjoyable time with friends or family—it shouldn’t mean exposure to harmful chemicals. Please, join us in calling for change today.


Brandon Moore is the National Campaigns Director at the Environmental Health Strategy Center. Lauren Olson is the Science Campaign Director at the Ecology Center.