The COVID-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on the personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by healthcare workers. To those of us on the outside, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between similar articles of PPE. But for those who wear the equipment on a daily basis, the differences are real and important.

For example, consider three different kinds of gowns common to hospitals: isolation, protective, and surgical gowns. They may look nearly identical to the naked eye, yet what you do not see is what makes each of these gowns so distinctly different. And according to Alsco, a leading provider of healthcare uniforms and linens, healthcare workers have to know the differences if they expect to stop the spread of disease.

1. The Isolation Gown

Of the three types of gowns, the isolation gown has gotten the most attention in recent weeks. You have probably seen one if you have visited a doctor’s office or hospital within the last month. An isolation gown is the outermost layer of protection worn by healthcare workers treating sick patients.

The key component of the isolation gown is its double isolation characteristics. In other words, it is intended to prevent infection in both directions. That is where the term ‘isolation’ comes into play. A functioning isolation gown protects a healthcare worker against exposure from pathogens presented by patients. It also protects patients from any pathogens that might otherwise be on the worker’s skin.

Isolation gowns have suddenly become important in the healthcare setting due to the belief that coronavirus can be spread by asymptomatic carriers. Healthcare facilities do not want to take any chances with workers who might be infected but not exhibit symptoms, so they require isolation gowns be worn.

2. The Protective Gown

A protective gown may be worn even when there is no immediate threat of the spread of contagious disease. Hospital orderlies wear them routinely whenever they clean surgical suites or patient rooms. A protective gown’s key characteristic is single isolation.

The point of the protective gown is to prevent the wearer from coming into contact with bodily fluids. When a healthcare worker might be exposed to blood, saliva, etc., a protective gown offers a barrier. It protects the worker against what are considered class A infectious diseases.

3. The Surgical Gown

Surgical gowns have been part of the OR for decades. In fact, the invention of the surgical gown was one of the most important advancements in medicine. It cut rates of cross-contamination and infection dramatically. Therein lies the key to the surgical gown.

A surgical gown offers double isolation just like an isolation gown. It prevents contamination both ways. Yet what makes this particular gown different is its ability to prevent adhesion and colonization.

The simplest way to understand this is to think of a surgical gown as a sponge. Gown materials are such that they absorb fluids and, as a result, pathogens as well. Thus, any germs that might be present on the wearer’s skin are absorbed by the gown rather than being passed to the patient. The same is true for any pathogens that might be present in patient bodily fluids.

Though operating rooms are sterile, pathogens may enter the air during surgical procedures. Again, a surgical gown can absorb those pathogens rather than allowing them to adhere to the patient’s skin or organs. The net effect of this function is a significant reduction in the risk of cross-contamination.

Isolation, protective, and surgical gowns are all pieces of PPE found in hospitals. They are all different, which is important to those who wear them.