The past and present of single-use lab coats
Nothing is more iconic of a doctor or scientist than the white lab coat. The coat came into existence for two reasons: to protect the user from dangerous materials or chemicals, and to protect the experiment from any dust, microbes, or dirt from the user’s clothes and skin. Lab coats need to stay clean to ensure work isn’t contaminated. That means no eating lunch in a lab coat, as it could get something in your food you don’t want—or your food might get into something you don’t want it to.
Originally, scientists used lab coats for the reasons mentioned above. However, those first coats were actually beige, rather than white. Beige lab coats were present for many years, and came about organically, since light brown was worn as a protective clothing by multiple professions. Blacksmiths wore brown aprons; beekeepers wore long, brown robes. The white lab coat eventually evolved (and over hundreds of years) from this type of protective clothing.
Eventually, the switched to white was thought of as more sterile. The switch happened during the late 19th and early 20th century. Scientists had a great reputation at this time, as the industrial revolution offered new technology and advances practically every week.
From beige and black to white
However, medical doctors did not have the same fanfare as scientists. Although some doctors were making advances, most were “quacks” and snake oil salesmen. The presence of a doctor for a critically sick person usually meant they were going to die, possibly more painfully than if there was no doctor in the first place. The uniform black coat of these past doctors was worn, perhaps ironically, to indicate professionalism and to cover the stains doctors would acquire.
Around the turn of the 20th century, however, doctors took a note from scientists and started using white lab coats. This symbolized a type of new start from a clean slate.
Two famous paintings by Thomas Eakins show this change clearly. “The Gross Clinic,” painted in 1875, shows an operating theater with doctors in black suits. “The Agnew Clinic,” from 1889, shows a similar scene, but the doctors are now wearing white.
The white lab coat has become a symbol of authority, knowledge, and scientific rigor. In many medical schools throughout the world, students now follow a white coat ceremony. In this ceremony, they are “robed,” marking their change from preclinical to clinical health science.
Nowadays, in hospitals white lab coats indicate rank as well. Short white lab coats are worn by medical students, for instance. Long lab coats are worn by doctors. Scientists still wear the same long white lab coat, though. Scientists only really need lab coats though when they are working with hazardous chemicals, or with other things that could stain their clothing. If not worn for these reasons, the white lab coat is simply a mark of prestige.
The white coat is beginning to lose popularity now in favor of blue and green scrubs. Some patients record higher heart rates and increased nervousness when they see a doctor’s white lab coat. The white lab coat can also strain the eyes under the intense lights of the operating theater or lab.
Additionally, some studies have shown that the lab coat can hold contagions that may spread to various patients. Though, the same would be true of scrubs or any other article of clothing.
Change to the disposable lab coat
At the end of the 20th century, as mass-production of single-use plastics matured, the disposable lab coat came to be. The notion of the disposable lab coat offered several benefits over the traditional labcoat, especially to doctors. Some general benefits include being able to throw the coat away after dealing with especially infectious diseases, as well as greater body coverage for more protection.
Benefits of disposable lab coats
Preventing chemical mixtures and limiting flammability
When a scientist wears a lab coat, spills and contamination of that coat are a fact of life. This means that, if a scientist is wearing the same lab coat every day, all day for a week, the chances that different chemicals with potentially adverse reactions combining on the coat become much higher. Even if a scientist wears the same lab coat all day, and cleans it each day, that risk is still there. When a new coat is worn every time the lab is entered, the odds of a chemical reaction due to what’s on the coat are next to zero. This seriously reduces risks of fire as well as physical risks to the scientist.
Preventing the spread of contagions
Throwing away a lab coat after every work session helps ensure that no diseases leave the lab or examination room. Lab coats must be cleaned, and often off-site. However, bringing an infected lab coat to a cleaning facility could start the spread of a new contagion. Even if the cleaning facility is on-site, that means more hands will need to touch the lab coat to clean or sterilize it between uses. This increases the risk of contagions on the coat spreading elsewhere.
Detergent, cleaner, and even cloth fibers from reusable lab coats can get into lab materials. If this happens, it can render a work session meaningless, or even worse, become a danger. Using a single-use lab coat ensures sterility every time that the lab is entered.
Easier to clean
Fabric lab coats need to be bleached to ensure that all contagions are killed. They also need to be thoroughly washed to ensure no contaminants are left after use. Disposable lab coats are usually made from plastic materials which are less porous than cloth fiber. They are easier to wipe down between uses, and can be washed easily with alcohol or bleach wipes to remove pathogens.
Varieties of fits and styles
Disposable lab coats come in all sorts of different styles and sizes. This makes it easier for users to find what they want, and they can even order a variety and try them on one by one to see what works best. Lab coats can be custom-ordered to fit various needs. For example, a laboratory working with hazardous liquids can order waterproof lab coats while a company dealing with microorganisms can order antibacterial lab coats.
And if the nature of the work changes, the companies or laboratories can simply order new and different coats.
Yes, disposable coats can be reused. They are typically used for one day or several, and then disposed of. This, of course, extends their usage and lowers the costs of replacing them.
For many, the first factor considered in purchasing any equipment is cost. But, unsurprisingly, low-cost items often yield low-quality results. The cheapest reusable lab coats don’t adequately protect the wearer from contaminants or contagions. They also suffer from greater wear-and-tear, and need to be replaced and repaired more frequently. Cheaper lab coats that receive heavy use can actually wind up being more expensive in the long-run than high-quality lab coats.
Disposable coats can be inexpensive and high-quality at the same time. Using them can keep projects on-budget, or even under-budget, when used right.
What are disposable lab coats made from?
Disposable lab coats are made from several different materials. The benefits from each type of coat correlate with the material it is made from.
Sunbonded Polypropylene (PP)
Polypropylene coats offer protection from dirt and dust. They can be used in a wide variety of different environments. They are also breathable, eco-friendly, soft, and lightweight.
Polyethylene (PE) Coated Sunbonded Polypropylene (PP)
These coats are great for lab and institutional use. They are protected from spills and splashes. Other qualities include protection from dust, bacteria, resistance to fluids, and protection from water-based liquids.
3-Layer Sunbonded Polypropylene/ Meltblown /Sunbonded Polypropylene (SMS)
SMS lab coats provide tough protection in a variety of environments. They are waterproof and one of their strengths is that they are resistant to tears and punctures, while being lightweight, breathable, and soft. These coats are more heavy duty, and suited to activities in industry and nature, as the tear-proof material protects from the many hazards of field work.
Microporous film over Sunbonded Polypropylene
Microporous lab coats are used most where anti-bacterial and waterproof barrier protection is required. These coats are durable, waterproof, antibacterial, anti-static, and anti-dust. They are good for working in science institutions and with electronics.
High-Density Polyethylene (Tyvek)
Tyvek coats provide a superior barrier to small hazardous particles. These coats make for good protection in industrial situations, offering protections against mold, lead, asbestos, and more. Construction and building inspection are good uses for Tyvek lab coats.
What Industries are well-suited for disposable lab coats?
- Asbestos and Lead Abatement
- Mechanical Assembly
- Clean Rooms
- Dental Work
- Food Processing
- Electronics Manufacturing
- Mold Remediation
- Spray Painting
- Laboratory Work
When is a disposable lab coat right for me?
When should you choose a disposable coat over a reusable one?
There are several factors to consider, and if one of the following outweigh other reasons, then a disposable coat is right for you:
Do you prioritize the safety of your workers? Current events (i.e., COVID-19) show how an infectious disease can shutdown whole nations. In order to decrease risk of infections from contagions, disposable lab coats are being used all over the world. Disposable coats also stop dangerous cross-contamination of chemicals used in laboratories, helping to prevent things like fires.
Does your industry involve hazardous chemicals, bodily fluids, or infectious pathogens? If so, using disposable coats is the right choice. Reusable coats must be washed, this increases the contact that people make and where the coats travel to. Disposable coats are never used again, so the odds of a virulent pathogen escaping via the coat are much lower than they are with reusable coats.
Is laundering your coats possible? In some cases, washing reusable coats isn’t possible, or it isn’t preferable. For example, if you work with dangerous diseases or substances that cause severe staining, it’s not worth it to launder the coats. It’s better to just use new ones each laboratory session.
How many different body types do your coats need to fit? Reusable coats must be ordered to size, disposable coats can be ordered at all sorts of different sizes and fits. This makes disposable coats a better choice for a wide range of people.
Do you need coats that provide a variety of different uses? In one company there could be biology labs that need anti-microbial coats and chemistry labs that require non-flammable lab coats. It may be difficult and expensive to get reusable coats that are both, and using the same coat in both labs increases the chances of cross-contamination. In this example, disposable lab coats are a better choice.
Does your company need to meet government regulations? Whether they be OSHA, ASTM, or FDA, the regulations that your company needs to meet can be met by disposable coats reliably. It’s hard to say when reusable coats receive enough wear and tear from use that they are no longer sufficient to meet regulations.
Do you need the coats for a one-time use? Painting, using household hazardous chemicals, mold or asbestos reduction, and deep-cleaning are all good reasons to use a one-time use protective coat. After use, you don’t have to worry about mold spores, paint stains, or any other residue left over, as you would on a reusable coat.
Disposable labcoats are for serious work
Nowadays, reusable lab coats are often elected for appearances, hence the steady popularity of the designer lab coat. Doctors wear these to show their professionalism and experience, for comfort, and for the effects that they have on patients.
Disposable lab coats are the workhorses of modern medicine and science. When dealing with hazardous chemicals, airborne particulate, pathogens, or flammable materials, disposable lab coats are a worthy choice for professionals.