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.

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Want scrubs like these? Find a retailer near you!

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 askauntieaggie@gmail.com.

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28 Responses to 10 style tips from the Head Nurse

  1. Cathy M RN

    A resounding Thank You!
    I once worked with a buxom woman of color who didn’t wear a bra—but wore white tops!!! Please!?

  2. Lorraine

    I couldn’t agree more! Thanks for a straightforward, well spoken article.

  3. Also, no long dragging pants! Many girls are wearing their pants too long and dragging them around like a mop on the floor all day, and then they wear them home. It’s a great way to spread yuck!

  4. Toni

    I enjoyed the article, but one other added note. Please iron your scrubs! Surely, it’s an embarrasment looking like a wrinkle paper bag. Wrinkle scrubs indicates “laziness” real talk!

  5. Carol

    I wish we could all hang this on the wall of our break room. I would also like to add, brush your teeth and keep breath savers handy. We all have to get close to our patients and their family. Nothing is worse than icky breath.

  6. Someone please tell the new kids (or whomever does this) that there is to be no crack on the unit.

    Besides dragging pants, there’s an awful lot of butt cracks showing with those low riders…arrgh!

  7. c0pperfyre

    I HATE looking at the girls/boys undies or butt crack. I have come to be know to discretely drop pennies down there as I pass! (hoping to win the jackpot)

  8. marie

    Most sensible and down to earth of the posts/ articles I’ve seen here. For RN’s and LPN’s, even CNA’s, not sure, they should all have learned in school heavy scents make sick people feel worse, so why wear them. And many people have allergies.

    Hair should be offf the face, and “a normal color” per my hospital’s policy. No piercings either. Single earrings and hopefully small ones that do not dangle. That is in part for YOUR safety, ever have a confused or angry patient grab at you…they can rip your ear lobe while ripping out an earring. Same with badges worn around the neck, they are supposed to be breakaway or attached directly to the shirt.

    Agree about shoes, and when they’re too old, pitch them. I have clogs (which I know some hospitals were banning when they were first popular, not sure about now, how often they’re banned) but I find they have great arch support, are comfortable, and I can wear them all day with no foot/leg pain. If allowed to say the brand, they are SAS clogs, made in the U.S. and unfortunately, not available on the internet. You have to find a store, or outlet mall near you, but they’re worth it longterm.

    Clothing, shoes, hair, make up or lack of, and lack of scent, as well as routine daily cleanliness should be natural to anyone working with patients.

  9. Josie

    Loved your article! It was to the point and perfect! My hospital had to redo it’s uniform policy because certain Rn’s wear “too tight” t-shirts for their tops and always have their thongs hanging out of their pants. I think I will post your article!

  10. Terri

    Wear white underwear under your white scrubs. I don’t wnat to see polka dots through your pants. Similar to the wear underwear rule.

  11. Brittany

    Thanks! A common sense article that every break room should have. I work in a Inner City hospital and never cease to be amazed by the attire considered “proper” by many of the uniformed staff–a button-downed scrub top, left open with a low cut cami and push up bra come to mind. Ugh..

    Nurses cannot expect to be taken seriously if we don’t look or act professional.

  12. Kimberly

    I’m going to school right now to be a CNA but after I graduate I plan on going to nursing school. I couldn’t help but to notice that there is mentioning of tattoo’s and piercings. Luckily I don’t have any tattoo’s but I do have a small nose stud [piercing] and my school lets me go with a small bandage over it. Is this something to potentially worry about? I’m pretty stubborn and I’ve had it almost for 4 years and don’t really want to have to take it out.

  13. TDK

    PLEASE make sure that your scrubs are not worn so thin that we can see your colored underwear through them. If you wear white scrubs, wear white undies also. Please cover your tats. I understand that they are popular now but they are not very professional in appearance. PLEASE wear deodorant. And WASH your clothes. I worked with a nurse once that never washed in scrubs and never wore deodorant. He was finally terminated because he was so unclean. And you know, work is not the place to look sexy. If you are trying to meet a man or a woman, it is OK just try to not look like a hooker or a john.

  14. CRN

    I have to seriously disagree with the white underwear under white scrubs. Unless you are extremely pale, these will show through quite starkly. Wear skin-toned underthings and you won’t have an issue. You can also opt for white longjohns bottoms or biking shorts to act as a “slip”. Depending on the time of year, or where you work, these can be very practical, too!

  15. Angie

    OMG! Thank you Jo!! yes!
    Biggest pet peeve…DIRTY NAILS!!!YUK.
    Also, Leggings are NOT for nurses to wear while on duty! Please don’t wear perfume to work. As long as you’re bathed, you don’t need it…SERIOUSLY!

  16. acey

    An entry that refers to both Divine and Flavor Flav. I’m impressed :->

  17. Latina

    Agree with skintone undies especially for people of color.

  18. LynnD.

    No! No perfume! No perfume! No perfume!

    This can cause problems for people who have allergies or are asthmatics.
    Even a subtle scented deodorant can make those going through chemo or are pregnant sick!
    There is fragrance in your shampoo/conditioner, soap, lotion, hair spray, in detergent, fabric softener and hand sanitizer. It’s too much already!!!

  19. Christa

    Pants which fit in the waist and the hips can still be too tight in the butt. Please, have someone provide you with a rear-view critique when buying new scrub bottoms. Worked with more than one person who didn’t realize that everyone could see the the lump of their extra long sanitary pad.

  20. Elizabeth

    agree with flesh colored under white, and don’t understand why it is the fashion now to have pants that drag on the floor, become dirty and torn.

  21. megbabyrn

    Great article !! Having been in nursing for 38 years, I have seen it all!! I am pretty short, so my scrubs are always too long. Both the hospital ones, and store bought. I always fold and tuck at the ankles, it works for me!
    I also like at least a little make-up, some people are pretty scary without it. To me, it shows that you care how you present your self, not clown makeup, but subtle. I agree that the hands that are a mess look scary as well!!

  22. Helenrn2

    I work in ICU and we had a rather large nurse who wore only white uniforms, no scrubs for her, with varying colored underwear. You know like tigers, zebras and a really large garden. All we could do was just stare and wonder if she had a mirror at home!!

  23. dwinter

    I work in a clinical setting for an Internal Med Doctor. I never wear perfume because I am aware that my patients could be allergic ….I wish I could say my patients could say the same about their nurse! lol

  24. hotrod41

    In the old days, nurses wore white uniforms, shoes and hose, and their nurse caps. Don’t think they were all white and neat. Some
    wore dirty, beat up shoes, big runs in their stockings, purple underwear under white uniforms, and their hair touching their shoulders. Style can be dictated, but your can’t make people be neat and clean.

  25. helper

    The fake nails are being allowed in some hospitals
    I disagree with this policy. There should be some one going around looking for this type of thing. Also agree scrubs should be pressed before wearing.

  26. Micki Maguire

    Very well presented. I took these things for granted before I started traveling as a PACU nurse. Thanks to traveling, I have seen it all. The other thing fellow healthcare providers need to be aware of is the odor of cigarettes if they smoke.

  27. izzynurse

    Guys, don’t let your chest hair poke out of your v-neck scrub top…for the sake of all that is holy, please don’t!!