5 Good Reasons to Wear Gloves When Working in a Marine Aquarium

Aquarium gloves can help protect you and your system

Aquarium gloves can help protect you and your system

Marine-aquarium hobbyists are often urged to wear protective gloves when working in their tanks. Depending on the level of protection desired, these can range anywhere from disposable (powder-free) latex surgical gloves to heavy-duty, full-arm gloves that keep your entire arm dry and protected right up to the shoulder.

But let’s face it, most of us tend to be rather blasé when it comes to this practice—myself included if I’m being perfectly honest. Sometimes I’m diligent about wearing gloves, but then there are those occasions when it just seems so much easier to plunge in a bare hand to clean or adjust something in the tank.

Despite my lackadaisical approach, there are several good reasons we should be wearing gloves every time we put our hands in our systems. Here are five of them:

#1 Keeping bacteria and toxins at bay

We like to think of our saltwater systems as pristine slices of ocean, but in fact, they can contain harmful microorganisms that you don’t want on your bare skin, especially if you have a cut, nick, or scrape. In fact, some forms of bacteria that can be present in aquariums (e.g., Mycobacterium marinum) can cause very serious, difficult-to-treat infections in humans. While such infections are not especially common among hobbyists, they can and do occur.

Also, if you read our recent post about zoanthids, you know these polyps can contain a very dangerous neurotoxin called palytoxin. If you have zoas in your system, it’s absolutely essential to wear gloves when working with or around them.

#2 Excluding contaminants

Wearing gloves offers a two-way street of protection. Just as gloves keep pathogens and toxins that originate in the system off your skin, they also help protect the aquarium inhabitants from contaminants that might be on your hands—for example, residue from soap, lotion, cologne/perfume, etc.

#3 Preventing a plethora of pokes

From the sharp edges of rocks, to jagged coral skeletons, to those needle-like vermetid snails that pop up everywhere, puncture-wound risks are rife in marine aquariums—especially reef and FOWLR systems. Reaching into a tight crevice or behind the rockwork with unprotected hands can yield a nasty, painful injury that is prone to infection. Heavy-duty gloves help mitigate this risk.

#4 Protecting against things that sting or bite

Gloves also offer protection against pokes and puncture wounds that are inflicted, whether passively or purposefully, by stinging or biting organisms. For instance, I’ve ended up with a painful, swollen finger on more than one occasion after accidentally brushing against a bristleworm in my reef system. (You’d think I would have gotten the message after the first experience, wouldn’t you?) There are other potentially dangerous live rock stowaways, such as mantis shrimp, that can inflict wounds as well.

Of course, plenty of fish are equipped with dentition or spines that can administer a nasty, painful (and in some cases venomous) sting or bite to unwary aquarists’ hands—lionfishes, rabbitfishes, triggerfishes, moray eels, puffers, and many surgeonfishes, to name a few.

#5 Avoiding allergic reactions

Many people are sensitive to coral stings to varying degrees and can experience reactions ranging anywhere from mild dermatitis to a severe allergic response. Wearing protective gloves when working in a reef system will help you avoid finding out the hard way whether—or to what degree—you may be sensitive.

What’s your level of protection?
So, fellow salties, are you committed glove wearers, part-time hand protectors, or confirmed skinny dippers (your hands, that is)? Let us know how you feel about glove use in the comments section below.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Lackadaisical approach describes me to a T, even though I’ve experienced a bought with Mycobacterium marinum years ago that proved to be very hard to treat. The ensuing infection led to open, oozing, very painful sored on the back of my hand and up my arm. Ultimately it led to blood poisoning. This was back in the ’70s and the doctors had never seen a case prior to mine. It was days and several visits before they got a diagnoses. The reason was, they were culturing the samples taken from the wounds at room temperature. Turns out that Mycobacterium marinum must be cultured at body temperature to flourish. After the correct diagnoses, it took six months of treatment to reach a cure. That brings me to today and my latest warning…

    Two days ago I got in a large clump of 100 Palyotha grandis. I was working with this large Paly separating them and mounting the singles on plugs. Earlier in the day, I had cut my thumb. NOT thinking, I was working with slimy palys, some squirting toxin out, drying the ends for gluing and never gave a thought to infecting that wound. Next day it was painfully evident I had indeed infected that wound. Now I’m fighting palytoxin in that thumb. Hmmm, Thumb rhymes with dumb! Lessons learned the hard way are often the best lessons retained in the brain. Don’t be dumb when working with palys and zoanthids, wear gloves and eye protection. Wearing gloves while in the aquarium working makes good sense, too. Better safe than sorry!

    • Very timely observations and advice, Dick. Thank you for sharing. Hopefully your thumb will be on the mend soon!

  2. Thumb was swollen, beat red, and hot for a couple of days. We use Melaleuca Oil as a disinfectant around here for everything from insect bites, cuts, burns and more. Now I can add, it works on Palytoxin infections, too. Pain is nearly gone, swelling and redness gone. Feeling much better about the whole thing. Now where are those gloves? 🙂

  3. Hmmmm…..
    Bucket loads of thanx … it ought to be remembered.

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