The stock image of a nurse in starched white dress, white stockings and shoes and a white hat largely has disappeared from the healthcare setting. Over the years, more hospitals have changed their dress codes and many nurses practicing today have likely never worn the conventional white uniform or even seen a nurse dressed in one except in old movies.
Nurses now primarily wear scrubs in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Scrubs generally are considered to be any medical uniform consisting of a short-sleeved shirt and pants, typically with a drawstring. The uniform acquired its name because it was initially worn by surgeons and other personnel in an operating room, or “scrubbed” environment.
Although nurses have traditionally worn uniforms, surgeons wore their own clothing during surgical procedures, using no protective or sterilized garments, until well into the 20th century. Eventually, the practice of wearing an apron to protect the surgeon’s clothing during surgical procedures became common.
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 raised awareness about the spread of infection and some surgeons began wearing cotton gauze masks. The purpose was to protect the surgeon from the patient’s diseases, however, rather than protecting the patient from infections.
By the 1940s, aseptic technique was routinely employed in operating suites to stop infections and pathogens from spreading. To emphasize cleanliness, operating room attire was white.
The combination of white surroundings, white apparel and bright operating room lights, however, was believed to cause eye strain for surgeons and staff. As a result, operating-room attire was changing to various shades of green by the 1960s. Among other benefits, those shades were found to reduce eye fatigue, provide a high-contrast working environment and make bloodstains less obvious.
The surgical greens uniform became standard by the 1970s and is the foundation for today’s standard nonsurgical scrubs, which are commonly worn by healthcare staff in hospitals. Surgical scrubs are typically owned or leased by the hospital because of laundering and sterility issues. They are made of durable fabrics that absorb blood and other bodily fluids but are easily cleaned.
The original green scrub uniform did not allow for differentiation between staff positions or departments, so nonsurgical scrubs became the accepted uniform for other healthcare staff. Available in a variety of colors and patterns, they provide a way to distinguish between patient care departments (emergency, labor and delivery, pediatrics, etc.), patient care personnel (nurses, respiratory and physical therapists, etc.), and assistive personnel and support staff (dietary, unit clerks, transportation, etc.).
Today, almost all patient care personnel wear some type of scrubs whether working in a hospital, physician’s office, clinic, surgical center or even dental and veterinary offices. Physicians, meanwhile, often wear their own clothing with a white coat, except during surgery or other procedures where blood or other bodily fluids may be present.