The History Of Why Lab Coats Are White

Have you ever found yourself being so nervous about going to the doctor that it shows up on your blood pressure reading? The Mayo Clinic has a diagnosis for that, and it's an actual thing that the medical profession takes seriously: white coat hypertension. That turn of phrase references the fact that, for the longest time, doctors have worn white lab coats, whether over their scrubs or over their street clothes. And, decades before doctors got in on the act, some scientists – chemists and biologists in particular — started the trend of wearing white lab coats.

These days, many doctors have ditched the traditional coat for scrubs. And of course, in some applications of biology and chemistry, full-body PPE (personal protective equipment) makes more sense than just a white lab coat. But culturally, anyway, if not practically, the white lab coat has been an identifier of doctors and scientists for over a century.

Blame Joseph Lister for doctors' white lab coats

Prior to the end of the 19th century, doctors almost always wore dark suits for reasons both philosophical and practical, according to Medelita. From a philosophical standpoint, a dark suit presents the dignity, solemnity, and seriousness of the medical profession. And from a practical standpoint, a dark suit did a reasonably good job of concealing blood, poop, vomit, or any of the other substances that were likely to wind up on a doctor's clothes.

However, by the end of the 19th century, the medical community was taking germ theory seriously, and practicing Joseph Lister's infection control policies, according to Science Museum. That meant, among other things, keeping hospitals, and the people who worked there, impeccably clean. White signifies cleanliness, ergo, putting a white coat on a doctor projected the image of cleanliness.

Of course, nowadays the white lab coat is more of a prop than anything else. Many doctors prefer scrubs, although some may wear the white coat over them. And, the traditional white uniforms for nurses went the way of the Model T, as they are almost exclusively dressed in scrubs these days, according to medical clothing retailer Medical Scrubs Collection

Scientists were ahead of the game

It's not just physicians who wear white lab coats in the course of their work. Some scientists, in particular chemists, and many biologists also wear white lab coats.

In fact, the science community was wearing white lab coats decades before the medical community got on board, says MarkerSpace Lab. Wearing a lab coat — of any color — protected the wearer, and his or her clothes, from the chemicals they were using. And, it's not just chemists: According to Dress A Med, scientists across multiple disciplines need to protect their skin and clothes from this or that, and a lab coat, along with other protective equipment, is perfect for the job.

And, there are several reasons why the lab coats they choose to wear are white. There was a time when science didn't pay the bills very well, and white fabrics were cheaper simply because they weren't dyed. What's more, a potentially dangerous spill is more likely to show up against white. Further still, a white lab coat is likely to stand up to the frequent washing such a garment would require, as MerchFoundry explains.

These days, there's no real reason for anyone to wear a white lab coat, as scrubs (in the case of physicians) and personal protective equipment (in the case of scientists as well as physicians) do the job that a white coat does. But traditions are hard to shake, and for now, the white lab coat remains a symbol of both professions.