Too Tattooed to Be a Nurse?


Celebrities have them, neighbors have them, family and friends have them. But should nurses?

Yes, tattoos have become so mainstream they can be found just about everywhere. There are television shows about tattoo artists and tattoo conventions held all over the world. But the ubiquity of tattoos doesn’t mean they’re okay for everyone, and hospitals and other healthcare settings often have different guidelines about whether nurses and doctors should wear them.

Lots of nurses have tattoos and it doesn’t affect their job. Some artists even specialize in creating custom nursing tattoos for medical professionals.

Nursing School and Tattoos

Students who enter nursing school may very likely be told they can’t have visible tattoos. For instance, in most schools it’s standard policy that tattoos on the forearm must be covered with sleeves, and those on the hand, wrist, neck or face must be covered in some way.

The nursing student dress code at Missouri Southern State University stipulates as of November 2009 that nurse tattoos are only permitted if they cannot be seen while the students are in uniform. Students may not cover up their tattoos with bandages, nor should tattoos be visible under short-sleeve scrubs. The administration’s position is that they are preparing student nurses for what they may face when looking for work as graduate nurses.

But tatted nursing students, don’t despair. While MSSU’s policy isn’t out of line with other universities, it does seem to be stricter. Student nurses at Pittsburg State University (Kansas), Crowder College and St. John’s Regional Medical Center must cover their tattoos, but they are not restricted to only covering with their short-sleeved scrubs. Bandages are permitted.

A final note about tattoos and nursing schools: Not only should you check the policies from school to school, but also be wary of policies that can vary between the nursing school and the clinical facilities the school uses. For instance, a student may be in accordance with the dress code at her nursing school, but may find that the facility for her clinical experience has its own set of policies that are completely different.

Hospitals and Tattoos

Rules regarding nursing tattoos variy by facility. A short stroll through online nursing forums will show stories of nurses with visible full sleeves (tattoos covering a whole arm) or just a few visible tattoos treating patients. But in other facilities, visible tattoos are never seen on the nurses.

A facility’s stand on visible nurse tattoos can usually be found in its dress code policy. Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s dress code for nurses clearly prohibits the following: “Visible or gross tattooing on face, neck, arms or hands; tattoos 1 inch in size—graphic/disturbing, e.g., displaying violence, drugs, sex, alcohol, tobacco products.” However, there is also a note stating that some departments may have stricter dress code requirements. Bottom line: The best thing to do when you arrive at a new job or have acquired a new tattoo is to ask your department about its specific policy regarding the symbols tattoed on your body.

Certain tattoo designs may be seen as offensive to some managers. You also don’t want patients reacting negatively to the inked-in images. Or for your tattoos to distract from the task at hand.

It usually depends on the type of nursing profession you are in and what kinds of patients you will be interacting with. Large public-facing institutions may be more adverse to nurses having tattoos compared to smaller facilities.

For example, the Red Cross asks that all nurses cover their tattoos for the “clinical experieince.” If you aren’t in a public-serving role, you might not have to worry about covering up your tattoos.

If covering up your tattoos isn’t practical, you might not qualify for the job.

Armed Services and Tattoos

Think that becoming a nurse in the armed forces will get you off the hook? Not necessarily. The words “Navy” and “tattoo” used to go hand in hand, but the face of the armed forces is changing, as is the art of tattooing. Not surprisingly, the armed services have their own rules about what is acceptable. An inside source in the Navy explained to me that visible tattoos can have a strong impact on your movement up the Navy ranks. In fact, in some, if you have tattoos on certain parts of the body, you’ll need a waiver to be promoted.

These include:

  • Above a crewneck collar
  • On the throat or neck
  • On the face or scalp

Any tattoos on the visible part of your arm are subject to certain conditions. They cannot be:

  • Bigger than the width of your hand, and the length from fingertip to base of the palm
  • Racist or sexually explicit
  • Encourage or advocate discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, ethnicity or national origin
  • Symbols of gangs or supremacist or extremist groups

And finally, any tattoos elsewhere on the body must not be visible through the fabric of white uniforms.

Nurse Tattoo Ideas

Lots of nurses decide to get tattoos that show off what they do for a living. Consider getting a medical symbol, such as a nurse’s cap, stethescope, a heart rythym beat, or even just the word “nurse.”

If you need to cover your tattoos at your current or future job, put the tattoo in a spot where it can easily be covered without making you uncomfortable at work to give yourself more options.

What do you think about tattoos? Do you have any? There are still administrators who don’t like the idea of tattoos as they feel body art doesn’t look professional. Also, keep in mind that not all cultures are accepting of tattoos, particularly on women. If you’re working in a very conservative area or in a multicultural one where tattoos may be an issue, does this change your opinion on whether a facility may dictate if you have tattoos?


Marijke Durning
Marijke is a professional writer who began her working career as a registered nurse over 25 years ago. After working in clinical areas ranging from rehab to intensive care, as a floor nurse to a supervisor, she found she could combine her extensive health knowledge with her love of writing. Although she has been published in a wide variety of publications for professionals and the general public, her passion is writing for the every day person to promote health literacy.

    How do I deal with an unprepared patient?

    Previous article

    The art of sanity: 5 ways to keep your job from driving you crazy

    Next article

    You may also like

    More in Scrubs