10 style tips from the Head Nurse


Image: Ocean Photography | Veer

I’m constantly asked by faithful readers, “How do you do such a demanding job while remaining a paragon of beauty and style? The rest of us grovel in the dust at your feet, wearing worn-out, ill-fitting scrubs, or stand in a huddled group in the parking garage, waiting for the vision of loveliness and grace that is you to bless us with a look.”

It’s not easy. Gliding in a lightly scented cloud of gorgeousness takes work. But, because I am just that good, I’m going to share some of my secrets with you.

1. Clean

You must be clean. Soap, water and shampoo go a very long way to making you look professional and trustworthy, even if you’re not feeling it yourself. Your hair, nails and teeth should be clean, as should your shoes and scrubs. Worn-out scrubs and shoes with grass stains—or worse—on them need not apply. If you wear a lab coat or anything white, be sure it’s some shade close to the original color. Likewise, if you wear colored scrubs, try not to abuse them so badly that they’re obviously faded.

And please, please, please never show up to work with last night’s makeup still on your face. Thank you.

2. Fit

Your scrubs must fit. There’s nothing worse than whale tails or tighty whities showing above scrub waistbands, except the look of scrubs that are a size (or two) too small. Not every brand will work with every body, so try on a whole bunch if you’re unsure of fit, then buy in multiples what looks best. Ladies, make sure the tops aren’t too tight. Gentlemen, be sure the drawstrings are tied firmly.

A friend of mine had his pants come down while doing chest compressions on his patient. That was three years ago. If you think we’ve let him forget that, you would be wrong.

3. Hair

In addition to being clean, your hair should be out of your face, and preferably styled in some way that it won’t dip itself into a puddle of poo in the middle of the shift. Long hair on male nurses doesn’t bother me at all, provided it’s neat. Braids and multi-banded ponytails work well for men as well as women. Please don’t have mid-back-length hair that flies around completely unrestrained. It’s unhygienic and a little scary.

Spiky purple and green hair may be cute as anything on you, but not when you’re fresh onto the floor.

4. More Hair

If you have a beard, keep it trimmed. You should not be able to floss your teeth with your mustache. Wear a T-shirt if the sight of your chest hair makes small children scream and weak people pass out. I know more than I want to about a couple of surgeons, thanks to their unwillingness to layer a simple T-shirt under baggy V-necked scrub tops. If you don’t have a beard, please shave more than once a week. Gregory House gets a pass on stubble because, well, he’s Greg House—and he’s a work of fiction.

Please note that the above does not necessarily apply to beards worn for religious reasons.

5. Piercings and Tattoos

Tattoos and piercings don’t offend me, but other people may find them offensive. Get flesh-colored or transparent keepers, and try to keep the largest and most brightly colored bodywork covered. Body art won’t necessarily keep you from getting a job—I work with a guy who has the history of Japan tattooed all over himself—but it may freak out older or more conservative patients. Use good judgment.

6. Makeup

If you wear it, keep it simple and neutral. If you look like Divine, you’re doing it wrong.

7. Underwear

Wear it. You’d be amazed how many people don’t, and how easy it is to tell that they’re not. Please, I spend 12 hours a day with you; I don’t need to know your deepest, darkest secrets.

Seriously, I had to pull a surgery resident aside one day and tell him to tighten things up. It was quite possibly the most embarrassing day ever for both of us.

8. Hands and Feet

Take care of them. You only get one pair of feet, and it has to last you throughout your career. Cute shoes might be a possibility if you’re lucky; otherwise, skip the cheapo shoes and go for sturdy, supportive footwear.

Your hands, in addition to being clean, should be well-kept. That means no acrylic nails for women (they’re an infection hazard to both you and your patients), relatively short nails for both men and women, and well-maintained cuticles and skin. Cracks and cuts in your hands just ask for trouble.

Back in the day, you could tell a nurse who had worked the trenches in World War I by the scars she carried on her hands—hand infections in nurses were that common. Let’s not go back to the good old days.

9. Bling

A big no-no. Not only do multiple rings and/or heavy bracelets and watches catch germs, they’re a ripped glove waiting to happen. Small earrings or no earrings aren’t only safest, they look best. And multiple necklaces? No. End of discussion.

Don’t even think of wearing a big clock around your neck.

10. Perfume or Aftershave

If you have to wear it, wear one squirt only. A lot of facilities ban perfumes and scented soaps entirely. I’m not wholly opposed to them, but I ought to be able to smell them only when I’m directly on top of you (as it were). Perfumes with range and striking power are best saved for nights out, not nights on the unit.

Let’s face it: A lot of what passes for acceptable appearance for nurses is stuck in the 1940s and ’50s, especially if you’re a woman. Consider this an opportunity to channel your inner Beaver Cleaver (if you’re a guy) or Doris Day. Yeah, I’ll admit, it stinks sometimes not to be able to express yourself, but hey, it’s only for 12 hours. You can hold your breath for that long.

Agatha Lellis
Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night. She writes a monthly advice column, "Ask Aunt Agatha," here on Scrubs; you can send her questions to be answered at

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