The Ultimate Guide To Medical Student Appearance

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Although not always explicitly laid out in writing, medical students in the UK are expected to dress in a way that reflects their professionalism and future job role as doctors.

This extends to what medical students wear, how they keep themselves, whether they have tattoos, piercings or dyed hair and even if they’re wearing nail polish.

Having spent five years at medical school myself, I thought I’d write this ultimate guide to medical student appearance so that you’d know exactly how you’ll be expected to present yourself if you’re planning on studying medicine at university.

I’ve tried to answer all the most common questions prospective medical students have, drawing on my personal experiences studying medicine as well as individual medical schools’ guidelines.

What Do Medical Students Wear?

Medical students, unlike the vast majority of other university students, aren’t able to dress however they’d like. What medical students wear is fairly standardised across every university in the UK.

Medical students generally wear smart casual attire that is suitable for a clinical environment. For men, this might be a shirt and chinos and for women this could be a skirt and blouse. If medical students are only attending lectures then they are broadly permitted to dress casually.

Although not yet doctors, medical students are already ambassadors of the medical profession. As a result, they’re expected to uphold a professional appearance, in keeping with how you’d expect a doctor to present themselves.

When a medical student is in a patient facing role, such as on placement at a hospital or shadowing a doctor in an outpatient clinic, they’re expected to dress as a doctor would.

However, if they’re only attending lectures at their medical school, with no element of patient contact, then they’re generally allowed to wear whatever they’d like.

For most medicine courses with a traditional pre-clinical and clinical split, this means medical students can broadly wear what they like in the first two years of the course until they start spending more time with patients towards the latter half.

For men, attire suitable for a clinical environment is pretty much equivalent to a shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of chinos. It’s the uniform you’ll find 90% of male medical students wearing!

A junior doctor in a shirt and chinos (Image courtesy of NHS Scotland)

The sleeves have to be rolled up as all NHS trusts operate a ‘bare below the elbow’ policy in an attempt to reduce the rate of hospital-acquired infections in their patients.

Female medical students on the other hand, as the fairer sex, utilise a slightly wider range of outfits. Anything that’s along the lines of smart-casual/business-casual is the aim, with shirts, blouses, skirts, flares or dresses all being acceptable.

Do Medical Schools Have Dress Codes?

So, if medical students are expected to dress in a certain way, do medical schools actually set out their expectations in a dress code?

Most medical schools do have a dress code. This is normally a concise set of rules simply outlining what is and what isn’t acceptable to wear as a medical student. Common exclusions include exposed midriffs, obscene slogans or see-through clothing for students.

A medical school will generally set out what they expect medical students at their institution to wear in a brief document that you can normally easily Google.

As a list of do’s and don’t’s, they’re often mostly common sense as to what would and wouldn’t be appropriate to see a patient wearing.

“When attending clinical visits, I will dress smartly and not wear clothing that is likely to cause offence to the patients that I will encounter by being inappropriate or revealing. My clothing will also be visibly clean and I will ensure that my own clothing is regularly cleaned or laundered.”

Extract from the University of Nottingham’s dress code

Although medical schools publish these dress codes, there aren’t often any strictly upheld rules on the length of your skirt or colour of your socks for example.

Rather, broadly your appearance should be in keeping with how you’d be expected to portray yourself as the future of the medical profession.

If you’re really pushing the boundaries another doctor on the ward might take you aside to have quiet word about your appearance or in the worst case scenario you may be sent home to change.

As long as you’re going along with how any other professional in the hospital presents themselves, and aren’t trying to make a massive statement with your appearance, you’re incredibly unlikely to run into any trouble.

I can’t say I ever actually looked up the official dress code for Leicester Medical School whilst I was studying there- and no one ever had a problem with how I looked when turning up for work.

Do You Need Scrubs For Medical School?

If you were to picture the stereotypical doctor in your head, they’d probably be wearing a pair of scrubs. So, if you’re training to be a doctor, does that mean you need scrubs for medical school?

The majority of medical schools in the UK do not require students to provide their own scrubs. Scrubs are only required in particular clinical situations, such as an operating theatre, and in these cases, the hospital the student is placed at will often have its own supply.

Most hospitals in the UK have their own scrubs that are often available in the staff changing rooms for theatres. This allows staff to leave their scrubs at the hospital after work so that they can be industrially cleaned ready for the next wear.

This means you never actually have to take scrubs home or wash them yourself- a pretty important point if your scrubs are covered in blood (or any other bodily fluid) after a hard day’s work.

The downside of wearing the hospital provided scrubs is they’re not always that comfortable. You sometimes can’t find the right size and they’re often pretty well worn. Some hospital staff therefore choose to use their own personal scrubs, and a medical student could do the same, but it’s in no way a requirement.

A couple of medical schools provide medical students with their own scrubs. This is because there can be situations where scrubs could be useful to have, such as in a clinical simulation suite or when doing a GP home visit, but they wouldn’t be available from a hospital.

In the first couple of years of medical school, it’s going to be pretty rare that you’d actually be in a situation that scrubs would be useful for- so I wouldn’t jump the gun and immediately buy a pair.

However, in the latter half of your course, when you’re far more patient-facing, you’ll be in a much better position to decide if investing in your own personal pair of scrubs would be worth it.

Do Medical Students Wear White Coats?

If you’ve spent any time watching American medical dramas or comedies, you may have noticed doctors are frequently seen marching about the hospital in white coats. If doctors do it, do medical students also wear white coats?

Medical students in the UK do not wear white coats. Wearing white coats has fallen out of fashion with doctors in the UK, in contrast to North America. The exception to this would be if medical students are working in a laboratory or dissection suite then they would likely wear a lab coat.

Every doctor in the UK used to wear a white coat. And the longer your white coat was, the more senior doctor you were.

However, as our understanding of hospital-acquired infections grew, white coats gradually fell out of fashion and favour. This is because the thinking is you’re more likely to pass on an infection if you’re wearing a long coat that can drape against one patient before you lean over the next patient and brush that same coat against their open wound.

A doctor wearing a white coat while seeing a patient

At medical school, I never wore a white coat on the wards but we were all required to have a lab coat to wear when we went down to the dissection suite.

Wearing a lab coat helped keep our clothes clean as we’d often have to immediately go to a lecture after dissection- and it’s not a good look if you’ve got cadaver stains all down the front of your shirt!

American medical students may have a white coat ceremony that signifies their transition from the pre-clinical to clinical years of medical school.

At some schools, where students interact with patients right from the start of their course, the white coat ceremony is held before the start of the first year. However, the white coat ceremony isn’t a tradition we observe in the UK.

Can Medical Students Have Tattoos?

If you’re thinking about getting a tattoo (or already have one), but are planning on studying medicine at university, you’ll want to know whether or not medical students can have tattoos.

Medical students are permitted to have tattoos. However, visible tattoos are discouraged and where already present must not be offensive to others. Tattoos should ideally not be visible when the student is dressed in short-sleeved clinical attire and some medical schools may ask students to cover them.

Tattoos are becoming more common, and more accepted, in wider society. However, the medical profession can be a bit of a bastion of conservatism.

It’s not that you can’t have tattoos, it’s just they are still seen by many people as being somewhat unprofessional. This is especially true when it comes to the older generations, who will make up the majority of the patients you’ll spend most of your time treating.

Plenty of my friends, who are doctors, have tattoos. You don’t have to worry that a tattoo you got when drunk on a party island will stand between you and your dream of becoming a physician.

As long as you don’t have something horribly offensive scrawled across your forehead, I can almost guarantee you’ll be fine. The public’s perception of tattoos is shifting, with it only becoming more acceptable for professionals to have visible tattoos.

If you’re thinking about getting a tattoo, to play it safe I would try and place it in an area that wouldn’t be visible when working on the wards. Although it would likely be fine ninety-nine percent of the time, if you’ve got the choice then I wouldn’t risk it.

If you’re wearing scrubs on the ward, this just means trying to avoid the hands, arms, neck and face.

One of my good friends has a small tattoo of an arrow behind her ear, which I’m sure no one has ever had a problem with. These aren’t strict rules but just recommendations to help guide you.

Can Medical Students Have Piercings?

Approximately 80% of adults in the UK have had a piercing at some point or another. But just because the practice is widespread, does it mean that medical students can have piercings?

Medical students are allowed to have piercings. Commonly, students are permitted to wear one small pair of stud earrings in addition to one flat small nose stud. Both of these must be removed if the student is to be involved in invasive procedures. Other visible piercings are strongly discouraged.

Piercings, along the same lines as tattoos, are acceptable as long as they don’t detract from a professional appearance.

Medical schools understand that it’s incredibly common for people to have pierced ears and indeed the cultural norm for girls to wear earrings.

A medical student wearing earrings

It’s often less to do with where you have pierced and more to do with what sort of jewellery you choose to wear. Excessively large hoop earrings, chains, large nose studs and visible septum rings may all raise eyebrows from more conservative doctors and university tutors.

Although many universities will ‘officially sanction’ a single set of earlobe piercings, I never saw any of my friends at medical school get in trouble for having additional cartilage piercings.

At one point, I actually had a helix piercing (don’t ask me why we all make mistakes!) that I wore a small stud in. Because it wasn’t amazingly visible and hardly detracted from my appearance as a smartly dressed medical student, I was never picked up on not following the ‘official’ policy for piercings.

If you do enjoy wearing a septum nose ring for example, you can always just either take it out or hide it inside your nose when you’re working clinically with patients.

Even though you’re going to be a medical student, I don’t think you need to be limited in your piercing choices. I can’t see why you wouldn’t be fine with anything that’s removable when you’re patient-facing or not visible when you’re wearing scrubs.

Can Medical Students Wear Nail Polish?

Painting your nails is a cheap and easy way to boost your mood, stand out from the crowd and improve your confidence. But does being a medical student impact your ability to wear nail polish?

Medical students are generally not allowed to wear nail polish. Fingernails must be short and clean, in order to look professional and reduce the risk of infection for patients. False or acrylic nails are also not permitted by nearly all medical schools.

Because of how hands-on you’ll be as a medical student, hand hygiene (including nails) plays a big part in how you need to present yourself.

As doctors (and medical students), we’re always poking and prodding patients, performing clinical skills such as taking blood and can even find ourselves handling internal organs as part of an operation.

Hand hygiene plays a massive part in reducing the risk of infection for our patients so anything we can do to reduce this risk goes a long way to improving outcomes.

Unfortunately, this extends to not being permitted to wear nail polish, false nails, or even being allowed to keep your nails long.

Long nails could easily pierce the latex gloves worn during surgery which would be a disaster for the sterile operating field, false nails might become detached and nail polish can flake and microscopically harbour bacteria.

Although medical schools’ rules on nails and nail polish can seem somewhat limiting, at the end of the day we need to do whatever we can to improve the outcomes for the patients we see.

Can Medical Students Wear Jeans At University?

Nearly everyone universally loves jeans and you’ll rarely find me out of my favourite pair. Despite our love for them, do universities allow medical students to wear jeans whilst studying to be a doctor?

Medical students are allowed to wear jeans at university. When attending lectures, and not seeing patients or spending time in hospital, medical students are broadly allowed to dress as they like, including wearing jeans. However, jeans are not permitted in a clinical environment.

There’s nothing like the comfort you can get from being in your favourite pair of jeans and a good hoody. Luckily for us, this is a totally acceptable getup to attend lectures in at the majority of medical schools in the UK.

When you are just attending lectures at medical school, and not seeing any patients, the rules as to what you can wear are a lot more relaxed as you won’t be seen by the general public. Just by your colleagues and perhaps the lecturer if you sit at the front!

A medical student wearing jeans in a university lecture

Jeans are completely fine for days when you’re only in lectures but aren’t okay if you’re going to spend any time with patients. This might be on a ward in a hospital, in a GP practice or even just meeting them as part of a university seminar.

In these instances, you’ll need to wear chinos or suit trousers if you’re a guy, and any reasonably smart equivalent if you’re a girl.

Girls can push the boundaries by wearing black jeans with a smart blouse but broadly the rule is if the trousers have studs on the pockets then you should probably avoid wearing them when you’re going to see patients.

Can Medical Students Dye Their Hair?

Blonde, brunette or ginger, can a medical student dye their hair to change their look, mix things up or just for a bit of fun?

Medical students can dye their hair, as long as their appearance remains professional. Extreme hair styling and/or colouring (for example, green, blue, or purple hair colouring) is not acceptable and the student will often be asked to alter their appearance.

If you were a patient in hospital, you probably wouldn’t be filled with confidence if your doctor approached you with bright purple spiky hair shaved into a mullet.

As you may have picked up on, the running theme with any aspect of a medical student’s appearance is that it’s broadly acceptable as long as it doesn’t detract from the overall professional image of the student.

If you’re brunette and want to be blonde then go for it. If you’re a blonde and want black hair then do it. If you’re ginger and fancy yourself as a brunette then try it out.

What you just want to avoid is any unnaturally fluorescent colours, any sort of multicolour combo or anything that would make your grandma gasp and ask who did that to you.

One of my good friends who’s an A&E doctor has just dyed his black hair bleach blonde! It’s quite a look, and he might have thought twice about it if he had any upcoming practical exams, but generally, as doctors or medical students, we’re free to switch our hair colour up as we see fit.

If you want to dye your hair a relatively natural colour then no one will have a problem but if you want to model your hair styling on an iced gem then you may run into trouble…

Can Medical Students Wear A Hijab Or Face Covering?

For religious reasons, many medical students may want to wear a hijab or a face covering. Do medical schools in the UK allow this?

Medical students are broadly permitted to wear a hijab or other religious clothing to cover their hair and neck. However, most hospital trusts do not allow students or members of staff to obscure their faces in clinical areas, such as by wearing a veil or burqa.

Studying in Leicester, I encountered a huge variety of cultures, ethnicities and religious beliefs while working in the local hospitals. I absolutely love Leicester due to the fact that it’s such a fantastic melting pot of different people from different parts of the world.

Plenty of hospital staff chose to wear a hijab, shayla or khimar and all were endorsed by the official hospital policy.

However, there isn’t actually an NHS-wide policy on what religious clothing can be worn and in what clinical areas. Each NHS trust has developed its own policy, which means there’s variation depending on where you’re working.

Some trusts allow any item of religious clothing to be worn as long as it’s done in a pragmatic manner in line with infection control principles, while others don’t allow patient-facing staff to obscure their faces by wearing a veil or burqa.

If you’re a prospective medical student who wants to observe a religious requirement for a head or face covering, I’d recommend looking up the policy for the NHS trusts you’ll be working in depending on where you’re studying.

That way you can make an informed choice on where you want to study and be able to adhere to the local hospitals’ policies.

Final Thoughts

As a medical student, the public will broadly see you in the same light as doctors- and often can’t differentiate between doctors and nurses or medical students and doctors.

This means medical schools expect their students to uphold the same high standards of appearance as would be expected of any doctor working in an NHS hospital (and sometimes even higher as you’re representatives of your university!).

As a result, if you study medicine at university you will be restricted as to what you can and can’t wear at certain points in your course, but, I can assure you it’s all totally worth it to graduate as a newly minted junior doctor.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.