White Uniforms for Nurses? The ‘Nays’ Have It…

By Maureen Shawn Kennedy, MA, RN, AJN editor-in-chief

Nurses and patients aboard U.S.S. Relief, 1921/via Wikipedia

Well, if sheer numbers rule, then the image of nurses in white uniforms has gone the way of the nurse’s cap.

Earlier this week, on AJN’s Facebook page, I asked whether RNs should go back to white uniforms as a professional standard. Within a few hours there were 20 comments; by the next day there were about 200 comments (we had to delete the post with the first 100 or so, since we were unsure about the copyright status of the image used—very sorry if that included your comment!).

Clearly, nurses care about what they wear. Comments ranged from one word (“No,” with multiple exclamation points), to thoughtful reasoning around stains and keeping the uniforms clean, to advocating for an individual’s right to choice (about colors, that is).

There were only a few comments that were pro-white, with arguments that they were more professional than colors and “wild prints” and helped patients identify RNs from other staff more easily.

Here’s a sampling of comments (a few minor typos corrected):

Yes—but no hats.

No—but I do think it makes a lot of sense to be able to clearly identify who is an RN when you are a patient in a hospital. Clear identification is definitely a problem.

I support white uniforms. This is the required color at the Cleveland Clinic. Patients tend to appreciate the crisp, clean look of white. Also, white scrubs may be safer because they can be washed with chlorine-based bleach. Some studies suggest that this simple action decreases the risk of HAI. Some people are arguing that white will show body fluids and soil that we may be exposed to. Seriously? No matter what color you wear, it is NEVER acceptable to wear a contaminated uniform!

White is cold , sterile, institutional and hard to keep clean. A study of people with impaired sensory and cognition indicated that often nurses in all white garb blend into the background and walls and appear as “floating heads.” Who does an all white uniform benefit?

NO!!! We like color, too! Freedom of choice!!

I think so—and the hat, too? When I’m at work, you can’t tell a nurse from environmental services.  I’ve been a patient and I like KNOWING who is the nurse.

My view: whether it’s a white uniform or colored scrubs, we need to be sure patients can recognize who is providing their care. We often claim that we’re “invisible” and aren’t given credit for what we do, yet we make it hard for our patients to recognize that it’s a nurse who is providing their care. Also, if we don’t differentiate among staff, patients may assume that there are more RNs than there really are.

Here’s another issue: some RNs cover their name tags with tape or hide their names, so patients can only identify them as “Mary” or “Steve.” What do you think of that practice?

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Editor-in-chief, AJN


  1. Nurse Gail November 1, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    How many nurses who dislike white scrubs have actually worn them for 12-hour shifts at the hospital? They aren’t so bad.

    There is a trend in NYC for professional nurses to don white scrubs and I asked my cohorts at the Hospital for Special Surgery (a Magnet hospital) for their opinions. All expressed positive comments and reported that their scrubs rarely become visibly soiled throughout a 12-hour shift. Medics at New York Presbyterian wear white cargo pants in the field. When I asked them about the challenges of wearing white, one of them responded with pride, “That’s what bleach is for!”

    When I work on the floors or provide private duty care, I wear whites. White scrubs motivate me to be extra careful when there is the potential for spills, leaks or explosions. The only mess on my scrubs at the end of a shift is my own coffee.

    Patients have told me that they appreciate the white scrubs for easy nurse identification and that nurses in white look cleaner and more professional.

  2. Brent Thompson October 27, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Name tags need to have our full names. The purpose of the name tag is so patients and other staff can identify us. That is part of the openness necessary for patient praise or complaints. This is also an issue of professionalism. It is fine for my mechanic or waitress to display only a first name because that is all the information I need in this transaction; but professionals should exhibit a little more formality. I really don’t want my neurosurgeon to only be known as Doctor Bill. A physician-patient and nurse-patient relationship needs to be at a high level of trust. When a nurse refuses to reveal his or her last name then the message sent to patients is that they are not trusted.

    In the last decade we have given up much in the name of security even when it protects very little. Anecdotal stories of nurses being stalked are not enough to make decisions that diminish the role of nurses in patient care. A patient crazy enough to stalk a nurse is probably also resourceful enough to find out her last name.

    Just as our uniform should project that we are professionals (in the true sense of the word, not the newer “anyone who is paid” sense) so should our name tags.

  3. Debbie October 26, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    At the two hospitals I have worked, we identify nurses (RNs and LPNs) by royal blue scrubs. I worked as a medical assistant in an occupational health clinic prior to returning to school for my BSN (and now MSN). I enjoyed wearing fun prints, but solid colors look more professional. If we want the healthcare community to view RNs as healthcare professionals and not handmaidens, we need to look the part. White? 12-hour shifts are not kind to white.

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