Pros and cons of color-coded scrubs

Everyone knows that scrubs are the official “uniform” of nurses. But many healthcare organizations also have their own rules about who gets to wear which hue. These color-coding standards vary from hospital to hospital. Some employers have more than half a dozen different colors in their coding system.

Fortunately, most of the typically assigned shades are readily available. For example, ceil blue unisex tops and drawstring pants are a very common choice for hospital dress codes. Navy, white, burgundy and black are other typical options that you’ll never have trouble finding in stock.

Why the Code?
The goal of color coding is simple. It offers a sort of visual shorthand that lets you differentiate one specialty or department from another. On the surface, it seems like this would make it easier to figure out who’s supposed to be doing what.

However, this strategy doesn’t always work as planned. In the experience of nurses like Brenda Britt, color rules are restrictive and pointless: “Navy blue for nurses and green for nurses’ aides…it’s ugly! Everybody else gets to wear whatever colors they want. The patients still don’t know who the nurses are.” Kim Ostrander asks this question: “Do the patients know what the colors mean? Does the rest of your own hospital staff know the color code?” Too often, the answer seems to be no.

However, color coding can serve a useful function if everyone makes an effort to communicate effectively. Angel Kirkbride finds that adhering to the dress code at her hospital is actually helpful: “I think it’s important to stand out. Before, patients were confusing PCAs and nurses. Now, we inform them from the get-go that RNs wear navy and blue…and I don’t have to worry about deciding what to wear!” A bright blue top can be particularly eye-catching and feminine when it includes details like piped princess seams to show off curves.

Why Nurses Like Having Assigned Colors
As Kirkbride mentioned, taking the guesswork out of choosing daily work attire is one thing that many nurses like about dress codes that specify scrub colors. Nicole Bonney had this to say: “Solid colors make getting dressed so simple. Black is our color of choice—we got to take a poll!” The slimming effect of black scrubs is accentuated with features like back elastic that can give a square-neck top additional shaping at the waist.

Limiting choices can also make it less expensive to maintain a wardrobe. Amber Ammann likes the fact that her employer doesn’t have a dress code, but does point out that this freedom has a downside: “It is very expensive buying enough scrubs so it doesn’t look like you’re wearing the same clothes all the time.”

Some nurses are lucky to work for employers who supply and launder their employees’ scrubs—something that’s only possible if colors are standardized. Cindy Blanco Pacheco is fine with this approach: “I don’t care what I wear, so long as I don’t have to take all the germs home with me.”

Why Nurses Hate Color-Coded Scrubs
For every nurse who likes wearing only one color, there appear to be two more nurses who can’t stand it. Some object to the specific color they have to wear. Nurse Terry Farley complains, “Navy fades something AWFUL and no two pieces match each other!” Farley believes a switch to strict color coding from a more relaxed dress code can negatively affect morale as well.

Most individuals who work in facilities that allow staff to wear a wide variety of scrubs don’t see the point in color coding. Josie Hufhand echoes the opinion of many nurses with the following sentiment: “We get to wear whatever we want. I guess showing up for work is more important than what color you are wearing.” With nursing professionals in high demand and short supply, Hufhand definitely has a point!

If your employer enforces a color code for scrubs, what do you do to personalize your uniform? Do you accessorize with a vibrant undershirt to show a little pop of contrasting color in the V-neck of your scrubs? Or do you kick it up a notch by sporting a fashionable zebra print clog?

Do you think nurses should wear matching solid-color scrubs?

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21 Responses to Pros and cons of color-coded scrubs

  1. Carol

    There is a hospital in town that does that and I HATE it and wouldn’t work there for that reason. Number 1: I think it’s devisive for the staff. It’s bad for the whole “teamwork” spirit. Number 2: What ever happened to individuality? I don’t want to be just “Nurse number 301 in the black uniform” or whatever. I hate looking like everyone else!

  2. sbosse

    Personalizing our color coded scrubs is not an option at my facilty. No piping or “bling” allowed. White or black undershirts only. Showes are about the only thing that hasn’t been very strictly limited.

  3. susan

    I did a travel assignment at an NYU hospital where the nurses were required to wear white and the nurses aides wore maroon. I can’t tell you how many pt’s would say “oh I get 2 nurses today”!! Pls such an insult to nursing.

  4. Monica

    I work in nursing home and we are color coded. Nurses wear white tops, aids wear purple tops, kitchen wears black, maintainance wears red, housekeeping wears navy, therapy wears maroon. The facility provides us with tops that have the name of the facility embroidered on the top. There are several types of tops to choose from: scrub, Tshirt, sweat shirt, polo, etc. We do get to individualize be the type of bottom we wear. As long as the bottoms are khaki or brown in color, you can wear whatever style you want. A lot of us nurses wear capris or shorts because of the temp inside. I like the color coding because residents, and staff, can tell the departments apart. Not sure if I’d like it in the hospital setting, but I really like it in the long-term setting.

  5. Rachel

    Isn’t it our ID badges and not what color we wear that tell patients who we are and what we do? Being forced and policed to look like every other nurse on the unit does drag morale down. We can look professional and express our individual style without being color coded. For those who think maintaining a wardrobe is expensive…being color coded is just as costly. But instead of a variety of cute scrubs, I am stuck with a closet full of the same drab uniform.

  6. Mari Beth

    We just recently went to color coded scrubs at my hospital and although I don’t really like wearing the same color all the time it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. At least in my unit, NICU, we can wear print tops as long as it has the color of our pants in it. We are the only ones that can wear prints in the whole hospital. But I know that it really doesn’t make much difference in whether the pts know who’s who unless they look at our name badge. It’s not like there’s a sign up somewhere that tells them what the colors mean…

  7. I did a travel assignment at an NYU hospital where the nurses were required to wear white and the nurses aides wore maroon. I can’t tell you how many pt’s would say “oh I get 2 nurses today”!! Pls such an insult to nursing.

    • Mary Anderson

      You honestly think that’s insulting… patients don’t know the difference between cna and nurse. All they know is there are 2 people taking care of then and they assume they are nurses. Many people have never heard about cnas or don’t think that cnas are in hospital Settings. I have patients all the time assume that I’m a nurse when I’m actually a cna going to school for my rn. Nurses where I work don’t mind if I get called a nurse because we are a team and there for the same reason. I understand that us cna don’t have the same education as you guys but we do a lot to help with the health care provides to our patients. You shouldn’t get offended of a patient calls a cna a nurse. They don’t know the difference plus between the two you know having a cna makes your job slightly easier

  8. Orlina

    I like color coded uniforms. It makes it much easier to know who is who. Of course, when each hospital has their own separate coding, it kind of defeats the point as blue can mean something else. Not to mention the shade of blue.

    But its either color coding or going back to the days of all white uniforms including the dress and hat.

    Hospitals need uniformity. I know too many patients who feel uncomfortable around someone who is not dressed for their profession.

    If you don’t want to wear uniforms then go into private practice or just leave the profession. A hospital should never be a fashion show.

  9. lisa

    We have color codes for each department in our facility.
    Nurses wear royal blue, xray hunter green, OR staff ceil blue, etc. No blinging allowed though. not allowed any contrast colors, threads or logos on the uniforms. Also if you wear an undershirt it has to be either white or the same color as your scrubs. May only have one pair of earrings for facial jewelry, although they do allow a nurse from India to wear a tiny rhinestone in her nose. They actually have in our dress code, that underwear must be worn. I have yet to see them check that one yet though. No artifical nails of any kind, real nails have to be less than 1/4 inch long and if you polish is chipped, you have to remove it. Dress code also forbids perfumes and colongnes, strong smelling hairsprays or deoderants, and you can be sent home if they can smell cigarette smoke on your clothing.

    • pjl

      I am an OR nurse so I am obviously forbidden to wear nail polish. But, I also feel all nurses should have no nail polish as part of their dress code, chipped or not. I just don’t think it contributes to a professional appearance.

  10. GJG

    I have had many patients who come to the medical clinic I work in comment on how nice we look in yellow, blue, green, etc. I wonder what they will say when we will all be in royal blue as per corporate mandate. We will no longer be individuals. I think it’s a control issue by corporate and has nothing to do with how patients identify us.

  11. Mary

    I hate being limited to one color and no designs. We tell the patients who wears what color and also have the colored scrub tops on their info board with RN next to Navy and CNA next to Maroon. The patients still don’t know the difference and don’t really care as long as their light is answered promptly and they receive good care.

  12. bradlk

    I have worked in a busy hopital that recently went to color coding the different levels of care. How nice it is to know who the RNs, LPNs, Techs, and Maint people are by the color of their uniform. The Doctors are no longer confused by the Tech wearing the fancy scrubs that looks like an RN. The delays in finding the RN, LPN, or Tech are reduced with color designations. However the color coding does affect individualism. Why are we there though? To show off designer scrubs? Or do we come to work looking for a new and exciting day of healthcare. The Pts really don’t care what color scrub we wear. All the patient wants is comfort and to be discharged as soon as possible.

  13. Nikki612

    The facility I work at is a rehab that focuses on physical, occupational therapy and nursing care. Next month we will be required to wear uniform colors per department. The only problem I have with this is that RNs and LPNs wear the same uniform as CNAs. In my opinion it is an insult to be lumped into the same category as unlicensed personnel. I’m sure its also confusing for staff and patients too. I’m sorry, but CNA and RN are not the same. This decision probably came from non-nursing management.

    • sanba

      I have worked in a busy hopital that recently went to color coding the different levels of care. www jimmychoobagssales com

    • Mary Anderson

      Yes a CNA and a RN are different. But also the patients don’t realize who is who. That’s why upper management a lot of time will put all nursing personal in one color. But even if you were to put nurses and CNAs in two different colors patients will still not know what the difference is. Thing is you find it as an insult for a CNA to wear the same color as you is very snide of you. That attitude can cause your CNA to not want to cooperate with you. Being a nurse doesn’t make you better than a CNA we are all on the same team and working for the same purpose. Plus you have to start somewhere right? At the nursing home I worked at I refused to work day shift because my nurse made me feel like I was less than them. You don’t want that because regardless if CNAS have less education that you we are very important member of the Healthcare team. We help the nurses with their job. We are the ones who see the patients more and inform you of any change so we can make your job easier and the stay of the patient better.

  14. ladyveteran

    I am absolutely against this practice unless I am allowed to wear my own scrubs. I want to purchase my own scrubs and if the place I work wants me to go to a certain color or style they should compensate me to change my wardrobe. We are currently allowed to wear whatever we want scrub wise. If I have to change I want to have them proved me with a clothing allowance to change. I do NOT like tie pants, absolutely can not stand them. I am very short and admittedly round. Hospital provided scrubs are NEVER the right length in either the pants or the tops. I think it is extremely tacky to roll scrub pants up. I see it at our facility with the OR and OB people (the areas currently providing scrubs in black (OR) and eggplant (OB). We are getting ready to remodel our med/surg area and this has been brought up as a very strong possibility. It means everyone will have to get to work at least 15 minutes early in order to change before starting the shift. OR it means the nursing coming on will be later getting to the floor for report possibly putting me late leaving. Are they willing to pay each of us for that extra 15 minutes or do I have to donate my time? I already get there 15 minutes early on my own to get ready for my assignment so now I’ll have to get there 30 minutes early? And there are always those that walk through the door right at 07, 15, 23. Now I have to wait for them to change, come up and get their assignment and print out their work sheet. Upgrades are needed for a changing room, lockers, laundry storage, etc. And unless it is made widely known to all staff AND patients what difference does it make if we go to color coded scrubs? Looks pretty confusing from the comments already made. Multiple colors make for more confusion. I like being able to be an individual. I like being able to wear what I want. I like being able to choose what color I want to wear each night. I don’t mind washing my scrubs. I much prefer it! I’m picky with my clothing including my scrubs. I can NOT stand the though of blending in with everyone else. I just see $$ signs if the hospital provides the scrubs. OK, I’ll get off my soap box and go pick out some scrubs for work tonight.


    Rather skewed poll question.

    How about?

    Yes. It helps patients better identify nurses
    No, I feel it doesn’t help and doesn’t hinder the quality care I give. Introducing yourself at the beginning of your shift is the best method.

  16. grobin

    I think the color coding is primarily to tell the nurses that they are not professionals and are blue collar workers that can be fired and replaced at any time. I was in favor of the conspicuous RN on the name badge, but the color coding is not recognized by patients at all.

    If the color coding was really for clarity, then the physicians would be color coded as well.

  17. bigredmonster

    As a lab tech, I am easily identified by the bright red “LAB” placard hanging beneath my photo id badge, just as nurses as easily identified by bright blue “RN.” I can tell at a glance, and so can any patient with normal sight, who is from REHAB, IMAGING, EVS, DIETARY, and who is an NA, ER TECH, CHAPLAIN, or PA.

    Badges also have a colored stripe indicating “STAFF,” “CONTRACTOR,” or “PHYSICIAN,” which I think helps staff accurately and quickly figure out who is who. But I’ve mistaken a surgeon in casual dress (t-shirt, jeans, ball cap, no jacket, no stethoscope, no badge) for a visiting friend, and it’s often difficult to spot doctors in the hallways when they show up in a button-front dress shirt or a t-shirt with a faded logo, without a badge. They’re contractors, not employees, so they can’t be restricted in the same ways.

    Some departments (engineering, L&D + postpartum) require specific uniform elements. The L&D nurses all wear multi-colored footprint scrub tops or jackets and have a specific color of background on their photo badges. Engineering has button-front tan work shirts. EVS are allowed/encouraged to wear teal tops (female) or embroidered tan polos (male) with tan pants. In recent months, I’ve seen an upwelling of elements of uniformity: telemetry could order matching black hoodie jackets (fairly unprofessional, IMHO) with “we’ve got the beat” printed on the back. ER nurses have the option of wearing embroidered black, red, or gray t-shirts, which seem more comfortable but don’t add to the professional look. Rehab dept mostly wears embroidered red scrubs tops. Registration people infrequently wear embroidered purple scrubs tops.

    Dietary people wear whatever they like, apparently. Desk nurses often wear office clothes. I’ve seen dieticians and case workers in heels, astoundingly. Administrators wear business casual, frequently without name badges displayed.

    I’m delighted that, as long as I dress relatively professionally scrubs, I’m not restricted by color or design. Patients often compliment my “outfit” and I believe that female patients are more likely to feel their day is brighter as a result of seeing attractive fabric. I’m not at all eager to go to standardized uniforms, as has been rumored. Creativity is definitely a perk of dressing myself for work, and the popular vote is rarely for a color that flatters everyone. Of course, we are hired as healthcare workers for our skills and judgement, not our looks, but do we really have to wear the same wash-out color every day? I get enough of that in nursing school (maroon on campus, white to clinicals) and will probably never wear maroon again….

    Although I understand the simplicity and convenience of uniformity, I hate what it stands for: conformity. I want the right to order the scrubs pants with super-long inseam and comfortable waistband and a ton of pockets and a wide range of colors. I want to wear an undershirt that complements the print of my scrubs top, which reflect my mood and energy level, and sometimes the forthcoming holiday (DO NOT take away my Halloween scrubs tops!!). I picked this profession for a career change because of the individual direction and judgement nurses can bring to their units, not because I wanted to look like an automaton.