Are There Different Meanings for Scrub Colors?

When looking for your next pair of scrubs, you should know if different scrub colors have different meanings – here’s what you should know.

If you’ve ever found yourself wandering the halls of a busy hospital, you might have noticed that, in most cases, medical professionals of all disciplines and specializations tend to wear scrubs or coats. In many cases, their scrubs tend to be different colors. 

But do these scrub colors actually mean anything?

Why do some doctors wear green, while others wear blue? What about shades of gray or red, or orange scrubs?

While there are plenty of reasons why medical professionals enjoy wearing an assortment of different scrubs, they’re largely mundane reasons. There are to two major reasons: preference and obligation.

Do Scrub Colors Elicit Emotion?

It’s true that we react differently to certain colors – but only given proper context and cultural reference. There is no real evidence that suggests we have an innate emotional response tied to any given color, let alone one significant enough that would have a genuine impact on our psyche under most circumstances. 

There are very specific exceptions, tied partly to biology and partly to media, such as our fascination with red clothing and items of red clothing, be they red shirts or power ties.

While some claims can be made given specific context – for example, our eyes easily catch onto big red signs at the side of the road, and color coding in media has helped us identify red with aggression and other things – there’s little to suggest that the use of certain colors has a specific effect on the people around you (although it does have some effect).

Green scrubs don’t make your patients feel that you are wiser, nor do blue scrubs give off an air of professionalism above other colors. These qualities can be seen through

  • Professional conduct
  • Competence
  • Calm and decisive behavior
  • Good communication skills

But there are good reasons why today’s scrubs tend to be blue and green, rather than white.

Why Blue and Green Are Common

There is some thought behind why certain scrub colors are more common in hospitals than others. Green and blue in particular happen to account for many scrubs in the medical world because they neutralize the color of blood. When a green or blue fabric has blood stains on it, the stain becomes dark, and nearly black. This is far less alarming than a bright crimson stain.

Meanwhile, surgeons have taken to wear green in the operation room in order to give their eyes a healthy contrast to the thick, vibrant red of human blood and organs. If our eyes stare at any one color for too long, our cones become fatigued, and we begin to see afterimages.

A different color allows us to take a break and let our eyes rest for a moment, improving the accuracy and quality of our vision. This is especially important for surgeons, who spend anywhere from a few to over a dozen hours performing surgeries.

Scrub Colors, Their Meanings, and Hospital Dress Codes

If the hospital doesn’t provide you with your scrubs, and there is no specific dress code, then it’s typically understood that you can choose which scrubs you wish to wear, so long as they aren’t inappropriate.

However, some hospitals do have dress codes meant to help the staff look visually distinct, separating specialties and departments.

  • For example: the trauma ward might be wearing a deep blue, while the obstetrics and gynecology department wears purple, and the nursery and pediatrics department wears a soft pink.
  • Sometimes it’s not to separate specialties, but professions: doctors wear a dark blue, while nurses wear a softer blue, surgeons wear green, receptionists wear gray, technicians wear maroon, and so on.

In general, unless there are rules, feel free to wear whatever scrub colors you enjoy wearing – whether that’s black, gray, purple, or a special shade of blue. If colors aren’t as important to you, then bank on fabric quality and cut, or consider mixing and matching pairs to make use of pleasing color combinations, such as monochrome with a warm or cold color (gray and blue, black and purple, grey and red), or two differing shades of the same color.

Sometimes It’s the Branding

As utilitarian as scrubs are, they should still be aesthetically pleasing. Many clinics and hospitals utilize them as other companies would utilize any other uniform, making use of color and aesthetics to shape and define a stylish brand. In this case, a clinic with a grey-orange logo and aesthetic may give their staff grey and orange scrubs to wear.

While color doesn’t necessarily always impart the same message among people, it can be a powerful marketing tool, as associating certain color combinations and shapes with your brand and image can help make you more memorable in your patients’ eyes.

What About Prints?

Scrubs with prints are more common among pediatric professionals, but unless there’s a specific rule against it in your hospital, there’s nothing wrong with printed scrubs. They often lend an extra bit of personality to your uniform, and help you look distinct from your peers.

Whether or not this is a good thing depends on the point of view, but there’s no reason printed scrubs would be in any way harmful to a patient or the hospital’s image.

Keeping Your Scrubs Bright and Vibrant

Now that we’ve covered why scrubs might look the way they do, it’s time to consider how best to keep that scrubs color alive. Colored and printed scrubs can easily fade if not given the appropriate care, and it’s critical that your scrubs are not just clean, but presentable and washed separately. 

Follow the instructions presented on your scrubs to keep them vibrant and prevent shrinking. In most cases, it’s best to wash scrubs in cold water with mild detergent, and tumble dry them on high heat.

If you want your scrubs to remain nice and colorful, try not to wear them outside of work too often. While scrubs are typically made with antibacterial fibers and there’s no evidence or research to suggest that scrubs (or anything else you wear) transfer diseases inside and outside of a clinic or hospital, only wearing your scrubs at work keeps them in near-perfect condition. And if they do end up stained, then simple color-safe stain removers will do the trick just fine.

A Final Note

Unless your employer provides you with your own pair of scrubs or your hospital dress code states otherwise, you are generally free to wear whatever color or style of scrubs you choose to. 

Some hospitals see the benefit in color-coordinating their staff and making it easier to tell apart surgical doctors from nurses, technicians, and so on, and others don’t. Choose a color you’re comfortable with and like or pick a variety of different scrub colors.