Personal Protective Equipment in Nursing: Its Purpose and Importance

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A female nurse wearing a gown and surgical mask puts on gloves for more protection.Over 89 million masks are needed each month to keep health care professionals safe during the COVID-19 global pandemic, according to an estimate by the World Health Organization. Personal protective equipment (PPE) — face masks, gloves, goggles, and face shields — protect health care professionals, patients, and the community from the spread of disease. Adequate personal protective equipment in nursing is especially important due to frequent, prolonged contact between nurses and patients.

A recently published article in The American Journal of Medicine — “Estimating Time Physicians and Other Health Care Workers Spend with Patients in an Intensive Care Unit Using a Sensor Network” — reported that nurses spend 32.97% of their time directly caring for patients while doctors spend 14.73% of their time with patients. In other words, nurses, on average, spend more than double the amount of time that doctors spend interacting closely with patients.

While battling infectious diseases or taking care of patients, PPE is a necessary medical tool that nurses must be trained to use properly. Professionals with an advanced degree in nursing can develop the knowledge to establish safety protocols that incorporate the use of PPE.

The Purpose of Personal Protective Equipment in Nursing

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines personal protective equipment as “specialized clothing or equipment worn by an employee for protection against infectious materials.” The equipment not only keeps nurses healthy, but it also protects patients from developing infections. PPE prevents the spread of disease by creating a protective barrier between the wearer and a contaminated environment. This barrier prevents viruses and bacteria from infecting the mucus membranes located in the nose, eyes, and mouth, as well as the skin. PPE is generally used in hospitals, clinics, doctor offices, and research laboratories.

Masks and respirators protect the respiratory system, gloves protect the hands, gowns protect clothing, and goggles and face shields protect the eyes. When selecting PPE, nurses should consider the type of interaction with patients they will be engaged in. If a nurse anticipates exposure to blood or fluids, they might consider PPE that protects them from these fluids — masks, goggles, and gowns. In contrast, a nurse giving a patient an immunization might only need to wear gloves.

Another consideration for nurses is the durability of the PPE. For example, N95 respirators provide greater protection and durability than masks. Finally, nurses must ensure that all PPE fits appropriately given the variety of sizes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that PPE is important not only for the health care community but also for the general population. Surgical masks protect individuals from airborne respiratory droplets or other particles that may carry the coronavirus. Masks, including cloth masks, also can prevent individuals infected with COVID-19 from spreading the virus through airborne droplets. According to the Mayo Clinic, N95 masks provide greater protection from the virus than surgical masks and block 95% of particles.

The Common Types of PPE in Nursing

As mentioned above, health care professionals utilize different types of protective gear. These include masks, gloves, eye protection, and clothing such as gowns, head coverings, and shoe covers.

  • Masks: Masks protect the nose and mouth from bacteria and viruses. A variety of types of masks are available that offer different levels of protection, including cloth, N95, and surgical masks. N95 and surgical masks are effective in protecting nurses when they are caring for patients who might be infected with, for example, the COVID-19 virus or tuberculous bacteria.
  • Gloves: Gloves are important for protecting nurses from contaminated surfaces or infectious patients. Moreover, nurses wearing gloves also protect patients’ wounds from getting infected. Overall, gloves provide a protective barrier for both patients and nurses.
  • Eye Protection: In environments where there may be exposure to blood or other bodily fluids, eye protection is critical. Eye protection is also important for nurses caring for patients infected with the COVID-19 virus because the virus can enter the body through any of the mucous membranes, including those in the eyes.
  • Protective Clothing: Gowns, face shields, and shoe covers shield skin and clothing from exposure to bodily fluids. Moreover, protective clothing guards ill patients against further infection.

How Nurses Ensure Proper PPE Usage

Nurses employ many tactics to ensure the proper use and effectiveness of personal protective equipment and to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) safety protocols. Before donning PPE, a nurse must first identify what type of PPE is necessary to safely care for the patient. After deciding on the necessary PPE, healthy hand hygiene should be practiced by washing with soap and water or using hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol. Next, nurses must don a medical gown that is appropriate in size.

If a nurse is caring for a patient with an infectious disease, a mask, preferably an N95 mask or higher, should be worn to prevent infection. In cases where a patient is not infectious, a nurse should consider a surgical mask. After the mask is secured to the face, the next item to put on our goggles or a face shield. After these are secured, the individual should put on gloves that cover up to the wrist. Only after all these steps are completed is it safe for a nurse to enter the patient’s room.

After caring for the patient, the nurse needs to remove the gloves and gown, practice hand hygiene, remove the goggles, discard the mask, and then wash their hands one more time. Amid shortages of PPE, nurses need to prioritize its use for cases involving patients who are highly infectious. Moreover, they should follow CDC guidelines in reusing PPE.

Explore How Nurses Utilize PPE and Protect Lives Amid a Health Crisis

Registered nurses looking to advance their professional knowledge can consider an advanced degree in nursing. An advanced degree in the field can provide registered nurses with the opportunity to become leaders in the profession. Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing can provide nurses with a curriculum that teaches advanced nursing theory and helps them develop the skills they need to be effective in their careers.

The program offers students the choice of four different concentrations: Nurse Educator, Adult-Gerontologic Acute Care Nurse Practitioner, Family Nurse Practitioner, and Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. All students are required to enroll in core courses in Theoretical Basis of Practice, Advanced Pharmacology and Assessment, and Intervention for Families.

Explore how Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing prepares students for leadership positions in the nursing field and for establishing safety protocols that effectively utilize PPE. 

Recommended Readings

Improving Medication Dosage Calculation Proficiency
Patient Safety and Alarm Fatigue
What Can I Do with a Master’s in Nursing?


The American Journal of Medicine, “Estimating Time Physicians and Other Health Care Workers Spend with Patients in an Intensive Care Unit Using a Sensor Network”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Optimizing Supply of PPE and Other Equipment During Shortages
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Guidance for the Selection and Use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in Healthcare Settings
Health, “What Is PPE? Everything You Need to Know About Personal Protective Equipment Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak”
Mayo Clinic, COVID-19: How Much Protection Do Face Masks Offer?
MedlinePlus, Personal Protective Equipment
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, COVID-19
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Personal Protective Equipment for Infection Control
World Health Organization, Shortage of Personal Protective Equipment Endangering Health Workers Worldwide