Nursing scrubs : Uniforms or street clothes?

The issue of what nurses should wear on duty is multifaceted. Should they wear nursings scrubs (“nursing uniforms”)or something else?

Among the factors are professional appearance, infection control, patient perceptions and nursing image.

Mandating a particular type of uniform may raise questions about whether the employer should be required to pay for the uniform, especially in unionized environments.

The History

The concept of nursing uniforms was probably derived from two sources.

First, the original nurses were often nuns, who wore a habit.

Nursing uniforms helped ensure the nurse would not be confused with a domestic servant, and an apron over the uniform provided protection from stains.

The traditions of a cap and pin were also developed in the late 18th and early 19th century.

White Uniforms

By World War I, nurses were beginning to wear all white uniforms designed for functionality and ease of movement.

These gradually transitioned into the classic white tailored uniform with a cap, white stockings and white shoes.

Beginning in about the 1970s, as more men entered the profession, caps began to disappear and scrubs became more common attire.

Today, nursing scrubs predominate, with the addition of a white lab coat, although some nurses wear street clothes covered by a lab coat.

Many other hospital staff members also wear scrubs.

Identifying the Nurse

From the patient’s perspective, when everyone wears scrubs, it can be hard to tell who’s who.

Name tags carry a professional designation, but may not be easy to read.

Street clothes with a lab coat is common attire for physicians; if nurses wear the same outfit, it can lead to role confusion.

Many older patients, especially, long for the day when a nurse could be quickly identified by her white cap.

Some hospitals and health care organizations have gone back to white uniforms for the RNs as a way to help identify these important staff members.

Keeping It Clean

Infection control is another issue for nursing scrubs.

One of the great advantages of scrubs is that they are easy to launder.

Scrubs in sterile processing departments are a much better choice than street clothes for that reason.

Colored scrubs — unlike the traditional whites — don’t show stains readily and don’t become dingy or yellow with time.

Those who wear white lab coats still face these issues.

However, colored scrubs with cartoon characters or other prints might not be perceived as professional, especially by older patients.


Another issue with street clothes, in today’s world, is professional appearance.

As it has become more acceptable to wear clothing that is revealing, for example, some people will take things too far, wearing an outfit that is more suitable for a cocktail party than a health care organization.

No matter what a nurse wears, however, he or she should be clean, well-groomed and neat.

Clothing should be pressed and shoes shined to present the most professional appearance. It’s true — you are what you wear.


Written by independent 3rd Party.

2016-22776   Exp. 5/18