Operating rooms, chemistry labs, med-school students, physicists…picturing all of these in your head, chances are the mental pictures all share at least one thing in common: a white lab coat.
The white lab coat is a quintessential element of any medical or scientific setting. It’s universally recognized as a symbol for scientific rigor across professions around the globe. We all think of science in one form or another when we see a white lab coat.
But, just maybe, you’ve wondered why all lab coats are white. With chemical and fluid spills, most of which are sure to stain, it might be a lingering question if you’ve ever donned a lab coat only to leave a lab or examination room covered colorfully in the unexpected.
There is, however, a reason behind the white.
Practical science is good science
Albert Einstein once said,
“It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”
You probably haven’t heard it said that way. This quote has frequently and famously been paraphrased with a now almost household saying: “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler,” which serves as a reminder that science isn’t meant to be an onslaught of elite jargon, but a collective exploration of the nature of our world…our universe…and everything contained within it.
Naturally, this can be extended to mean that best way to practice science is to follow a practical approach. This means it will always be a complex and lingering process.
And so, practicality is key at every level of the scientific process, including the universal use of protective attire.
In any setting that requires pristine equipment and attire, it is absolutely necessary that protective clothing be easy to clean and keep clean. Lab coats serve as a sort of armor that shields the wearer from harmful chemicals, bacteria and everything else on the other side of the fabric, and the color helps to keep this armor in the best condition to protect the wearer; stains of any kind are much easier to pick out on white fabric.
Because of this, it is always easy to tell when a white lab coat needs to be cleaned immediately, which in turn can help avoid infections and other harmful but avoidable risks.
Additionally, as lab coats need to be cleaned often, their white color makes them easier to maintain. Should your coat need to be bleached or chemically cleaned in some other fashion that would otherwise damage colored fibers, a white lab coat will not lose any coloring at all, making it easy to maintain and keep clean and ready for extended use.
The exact origins of the white lab coat are far from known. It is known, however, that before lab coats became popular in their contemporary white, they were commonly beige. This latest shift was likely due to simple cost. Dying fabric any color is more expensive, and the need to keep fabric coats pristinely clean make it expensive to maintain a colored fabric in good shape.
Being easy to maintain and relatively inexpensive to produce, the white lab coat rightfully earned its status as practical, but there is much more to the color than just practicality.
A powerful symbolic significance
As mentioned, practicality isn’t what comes to mind when we see a white lab coat. Instead, we might think of a status symbol like doctor, a student, or any type of scientist. Lab coats have also remained white for this reason: the white lab coat has symbolic weight.
Especially in medicine, the color white was essential for generations in promoting an image of scientific rigor and academic maturity. Lab coats were white before doctors began to wear them, and when doctors made the switch from once-trademark black suits to the white fabric, it was mainly an attempt to move past the stigma of snake-oil vendors and usher in the status of a scientist that we associate with medicine today.
Following this philosophical transition, medical students today receive their white lab coats as a “rite of passage;” chemistry students don theirs with pride in the laboratory; and, in general, the white lab coats have come to be part of a scientific uniform used to distinguish individuals with a high degree of training and knowledge. Today, the lab coat is a symbol of high competence in any scientific field.
The white isn’t just important for those professionals, either; the white can be just as important a symbol of competence and comfort for the patients as well. That, in itself, is the fundamental sense of its very own fashion that the lab coat has defined with the passage of time.
Weaving fashion into function, however, goes further than color with lab coats today. Confidence is boosted across professions with fashion lab coats like the ones Dr-James designs. However…the one element they’ll all have in common, no matter the design, is the color white.
Assurance and comfort
Beyond being just an assertive color to wear, we return again to the practical side in the argument for white. In an academic setting, white lab coats help distinguish students of one major from another; in a research setting, white lab coats can help distinguish different specializations or roles from each other; and, perhaps more importantly, in hospitals white lab coats can help patients tell their doctors or physicians apart from other staff. While patients can often get nervous from simply being in a hospital or healthcare setting, it has been shown that seeing a white lab coat helps patients feel more relaxed or reassured about whatever procedure or treatment they may be undergoing. This is due to everything we’ve already listed: white lab coats signify cleanliness, white lab coats signify professionalism, white lab coats signify competence, white lab coats signify hope, and, of course, white lab coats signify status and excellence.
From practicality to professionalism, lab coats are and have been white in order to be efficient and useful scientific tools, but also to remain symbols for the precision and rigor required in the scientific community. Researchers, doctors and students always need to be at the top of their game, and the white lab coat is a socially useful reassurance that they are.
Walking through any hospital, university campus, or any other scientific facility, you are sure to spot a lab coat on the premises, and now you know why that lab coat will be white.