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Why Do Doctors Wear Scrubs? (Doctor Explains)

Why Do Doctors Wear Scrubs? (Doctor Explains)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
Photo of author
Written By Dr Ollie

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

As a doctor, you’ll almost always find me wearing scrubs when I’m working in a hospital.

They’re pretty much the standard uniform for medical professionals such as doctors and nurses.

Doctors wear scrubs due to their comfort, professional appearance and practicality, but primarily due to the infection control advantages they confer. Scrubs can be doffed at the end of each shift and washed at hot temperatures to reduce the risk of spreading infection.

While there are plenty of advantages to wearing scrubs, they do come with their downsides too.

In this article, I’m going to further explore why they’ve become so popular among doctors and nurses as well as looking at a bit of the history behind how scrubs came to be.

The History Of Scrubs

Scrubs as clothes have evolved from the operating theatre and how surgeons choose to dress.

Before the medical profession understood the importance of infection prevention, surgeons used to wear their own clothes to the operating theatre, potentially augmented by a butcher’s apron.

Surgery was a messy business, without effective anaesthesia, and both the floor, operating room and surgeon would often end up soaked in blood by the end of a procedure.

However, as our understanding of germ theory progressed, doctors began to understand the importance of a ‘clean’ environment.

Joseph Lister (1827–1912) was a pioneer in the field (it’s who the mouthwash Listerine is named after) and introduced the concept of ‘sterilising’ instruments, the patient’s skin and surrounding ward prior to an operation.

By the 1940s, aseptic surgical drapes and gowns were being used in operating rooms, with instruments, supplies and dressings being sterilised through exposure to high-pressure steam.

Originally white in colour, these first iterations of scrubs were phased out in the 1950s and 60s in favour of the modern green shades used today, in order to reduce the strain on a surgeon’s eyes in the brightly lit surgical environment.

Two surgeons performing an operation
Surgeons in surgical gowns and scrubs

By the 1970s, surgical garments had undergone significant evolution, embracing a contemporary form consisting of a V-necked shirt with short sleeves, complemented by drawstring pants or a calf-length dress with short sleeves.

Today, scrubs have become a symbol of expertise, professionalism, and cleanliness in healthcare.

The modern design of scrubs has evolved to accommodate the need for medical professionals to have easy-to-clean garments that provide them with freedom of movement, comfort, and functionality.

Why Doctors Wear Scrubs

As a junior doctor who’s worn more than his fair share of scrubs, I thought I could shed some light on why so many doctors do choose to wear them compared to other alternatives.

Why Doctors Wear Scrubs Pixel Infographic

Hygiene and Infection Control

Scrubs are specifically designed to promote a clean environment in healthcare settings.

Their short sleeves reduce the risk of shirt cuffs picking up bacteria to transfer from one patient to the next and their simple design and manufacture allow them to be washed at high temperatures between uses.

This is crucial to keeping hospitals and other medical facilities safe for both healthcare professionals and their patients.

Comfort and Movement

Healthcare professionals have physically demanding jobs that require long hours on their feet, moving from room to room while providing care.

Scrubs are designed to be comfortable and allow for ease of movement, ensuring that doctors do not feel restricted or uncomfortable while working.

It’s exactly the same reason why you see so many doctors wearing Crocs.

If you’ve never worn a pair of scrubs, it’s almost like wearing a pair of pyjamas to work!

In fact, during my time at medical school, I know a few of my colleagues actually took scrubs from the local hospital in order to use as pyjamas as they found them that comfortable.

Professional Appearance

When a healthcare professional is dressed in scrubs, they project a polished and professional image to patients, families, and peers.

This helps establish trust and confidence in the care they provide.

The uniform-like appearance of scrubs also conveys a sense of unity and consistency within the medical facility, which contributes positively to the working environment.

A patient’s mindset and view of their treating clinicians has actually been shown time and time again to have a significant impact on their perception of treatment.

Easy Identification

Another advantage of scrubs is that they make it simple to identify different members of the healthcare team based on the scrubs they wear.

Many hospitals and clinics have specific colours allocated to different roles or departments within their facility.

This allows for clear and easy identification of healthcare professionals and helps in navigating the fast-paced environment of a medical facility.

Practicality

Scrubs are designed with practicality in mind.

Most scrubs are made from durable materials that can handle both frequent wear and regular washing.

Moreover, they often incorporate useful features such as pockets and loops for carrying essential tools like pens, scissors, and medical equipment.

You’d be surprised by how much you sometimes have to carry as a doctor but this practical design makes it easy for healthcare professionals to keep everything they need close at hand while they work.

Disadvantages Of Wearing Scrubs

While I do think scrubs are great, there are definitely still some disadvantages to wearing them.

Two doctors sat a ward workstation
Two doctors wearing scrubs on a hospital ward

Won’t Always Fit Well

Scrubs are often designed as a one-size-fits-all solution for medical professionals.

However, the reality is that they may not provide the perfect fit for everyone.

Some individuals may find that the scrubs they wear are too loose, causing discomfort and the potential for accidents.

Others may find them too tight, restricting movement and making it difficult to perform essential tasks such as squatting down to take a patient’s blood.

These fit issues coupled with the fact that hospitals often run out of the more popular sizes can lead to a less-than-ideal working environment for healthcare professionals.

Material Can Be Low Quality

Another disadvantage of wearing scrubs is that the material used in their production can sometimes be of low quality.

This may result in scrubs that are less durable and a lot less comfy to wear.

The cheaper materials are often just a bit more scratchy and less soft than scrubs made with higher percentages of cotton.

Moreover, low-quality materials may not provide the level of protection required in certain settings, potentially putting the healthcare worker at risk of exposure to harmful substances or pathogens.

Although they are thrown out when they get too old, it wouldn’t be uncommon to come across a set of scrubs that have a few small holes in.

The Meaning Of Different Coloured Scrubs

Apart from doctors, many other healthcare professionals wear scrubs as part of their daily attire. This includes nurses, various hospital technicians and healthcare assistants.

Different coloured scrubs can signify various roles and responsibilities within the healthcare setting.

Some facilities assign specific colours to distinguish staff members by their roles, while others allow individual preference.

Here are some common colours and their general meanings within the NHS:

  • Blue: This colour is often associated with professions like nursing and radiology. With its calming effect, blue scrubs are believed to evoke a sense of trust and competence.
  • Green: Green scrubs are commonly worn by surgeons, reflecting the historical connection with surgical gowns. The colour green has also been associated with healing, making it fitting for those involved in patient care and recovery.
  • Grey: Grey scrubs are a versatile choice, frequently chosen by healthcare professionals involved in various technical roles, such as laboratory or imaging departments.
  • Pink: Often worn by those working in paediatrics, pink scrubs can help to create a friendly, approachable atmosphere for young patients, making their experience in the healthcare setting more comfortable.
  • White: Traditionally the colour of nurses’ uniforms, white scrubs symbolise cleanliness and purity. White scrubs are relatively rare these days but you’ll still see white tunics (just the tops) worn by nurses.

The specific meaning of coloured scrubs may vary between hospitals and clinics. Some healthcare facilities will have rigid guidelines for who can wear what colour but others will just allow individuals to choose.

Alternatives To Scrubs

While fairly ubiquitous in hospitals across the UK, there are some alternatives to scrubs that were used in the past or are still in use today, particularly in different settings or roles.

One of the most traditional alternatives is formal attire with a white coat.

This type of attire is typically seen in older physicians or medical professionals who have more administrative roles rather than active patient care.

White coats were actually officially phased out of the NHS in 2007, due to concern over their infection risk.

Another alternative is gowns, which were the precursor to modern scrubs.

In the early days of medicine, surgeons wore simple scrub gowns to help keep contaminants at bay and assist with infection control.

As medical practices advanced and the need for more functional attire arose, gowns were replaced with scrubs.

Pharmacists and certain other healthcare workers may also choose to wear personal protective clothing such as lab coats, especially in a non-hospital setting like retail chains rather than scrubs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do doctors wear scrubs in the UK?

Doctors in the UK wear scrubs, particularly when working in hospital settings. Scrubs provide a uniform that is simple, clean, and functional. They help maintain hygiene, protect against bodily fluids, and are cost-effective, making them a popular choice for healthcare professionals worldwide.

Do medical professionals wear clothes beneath their scrubs?

In most cases, medical professionals do not wear clothes beneath their scrubs, as it can be uncomfortable and may make it more difficult to maintain proper hygiene. However, some people may choose to wear an undershirt or a tank top for added comfort and modesty, depending on their preferences.

Why are scrubs designed with V-necks?

Scrubs are often designed with V-necks for practical and functional reasons. The V-neck design allows for easy donning and removal, as well as better ventilation, keeping the wearer comfortable during their long shifts. Additionally, the V-neck design can help accommodate a wide range of body types.

Why do surgeons tuck in their scrubs?

Surgeons typically tuck in their scrubs to help maintain a sterile environment during surgery and reduce the risk of contamination from loose clothing. Tucking in scrubs also provides a clean and professional appearance, which can be especially important in the operating room.

Final Thoughts

In summary, medical scrubs play a crucial role in ensuring cleanliness, safety, and efficiency in healthcare environments.

They protect both medical professionals and patients from potential infections and contamination while promoting a professional and focused atmosphere for optimal patient care.

If you ever have the chance to wear a good pair of scrubs I think you’ll quickly understand why so many doctors do choose to practically live in them!

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.