Lab coats are an essential element to both laboratory wear and medical attire. From safety to professionalism, sporting a lab coat offers safety and aesthetic purpose with next to no drawbacks.
But how can you be sure that your lab coat is giving you as many benefits and as few drawbacks as possible? And, if you're in a leadership position, how can you be sure of the same for an entire team?
Searching online for designer lab coats, you’re sure to find a plethora of vendors offering a wide variety of coats. Is there a set of standards for all these lab coats? Should there be?
While a definitive and concrete “yes” would be a comforting response, the actual answer is a bit nuanced. There are certain things lab coats should avoid and certain things they should incorporate, but getting specific will really depend on the context in which the coat will be used.
Surgeons, physicians, chemists and veterinarians all use lab coats. The training, education, and skillsets of each of these will obviously vary, and so will their workplaces and the type of protection each needs from their respective environments.
At least, let’s hope a veterinarian isn’t working with the same experiments a chemist might.
To hack away at the nuance and explore what lab coats should and shouldn’t be in general, plus how different specifications benefit different contexts, let’s break the conversation down into the following lab coat categories:
What a lab coat should and shouldn’t be
When considering the fit of a lab coat, there are a few things to consider.
First, how do the manufacturer’s sizes work? As most of us have come to find out, clothing sizes throughout the fashion industry are FAR from standard. The words “small,” “medium” and “large” are often relative to each brand, and even sometimes to each article of clothing.
When talking lab coats, sizes should never be baggy. This does not necessarily mean that coats should be tight—restricting movement is a no-go—but baggy sizes are arguably more dangerous. Imagine turning around and having a particularly loose part of the coat snag on a Bunsen burner, either lighting your coat on fire or knocking the burner over and lighting something else on fire. Baggy lab coats can be dangerous to the wearer as well as anyone around them. In this case, a fitted and stylish lab coat is actually the safer coat.
How sleeves fit is equally important to consider. For the same reasons, sleeves should never be too baggy, as this could lead to the same snags and spills. It might seem appropriate, then, to opt for short sleeves, but this is not necessarily a good solution.
Let’s break that down.
In a lab setting, the purpose of a lab coat is to protect you from harmful chemical spills, burns and hazards in general. This is why lab coats cover so much of your body—and the more they cover, the better (within reason). Especially as we move and manipulate things, hazardous or not, with our hands, it makes sense to ensure our arms are just as protected as our bodies.
In short, there’s no real place for short sleeved lab coats in a lab setting, especially when dealing with hazards of any kind. Some popularity for short sleeved coats emerged in hospitals with the idea that reducing the surface area would reduce the amount of germs “hitching a ride” on medical attire. But the fashion was short lived and hardly adopted. Because, while this might make some sense at first glance, a paper from the Journal of Hospital Medicine found that there was no significant difference between the amounts of bacteria accumulated on long and short sleeve lab coats.
In a setting where hazardous materials, chemical splashes, or other harmful substances aren’t a concern, short sleeve lab coats could be a comfortable option, especially in warmer temperatures, and is essentially a matter of preference. But as far as protection and safety are concerned, manufacturers should strive to produce long sleeved, non-baggy lab coats.
Wearing your lab coat open and having it flap majestically as you whip around corners and fly from patient to patient might be a great feature if you’re a character in a medical drama television show, but when it comes to real-life safety and efficiency, not fastening your lab coat can be just as dangerous as not wearing one at all.
An unfastened lab coat is dangerous for the same reasons mentioned in the section above—it can snag on something and spill chemicals or light rooms on fire. Lab coats, then, should fasten and should fasten well—however, they shouldn’t fasten in such a manner that unfastening them turns into a taxing or lengthy process.
Imagine…despite taking all of the necessary precautions, your coat still manages to catch fire, or some hazardous chemical spills all over the fabric. The next step is to remove the coat as quickly as possible! If your lab coat sports a tied belt or large buttons, this might be an issue.
Dr-James lab coats take the stand that the safest options are big, smooth buttons or snap-fasteners and studs. These snap your coat shut and hold while you need them to, but should the lab coat need to be removed immediately, a sturdy pull is all that’s needed to unfasten the coat and remove it.
Additionally, unless they fall out for whatever reason, studs won’t get lost. Belts, on the other hand, are easy to misplace, especially after going through the wash. And difficult-to-use buttons are notorious for falling off.
No surprise here, lab coats should be white. While there’s no law against colored lab coats, white lab coats have been white for many historical and practical reasons.
In practical terms, white fabric is easy to clean. Never will you have to worry about your white lab coat fading, either. This makes cleaning and maintaining your lab coat both easier and less expensive, which is also true for manufacturing.
Affordable lab coats would end up being slightly less affordable if colorful dying were added to the manufacturing process.
Furthermore, while white is a nightmare for stain-prone settings, the ability to stain easily is actually a good thing in a clinic, operation room or even laboratory setting. Any stain can be an indicator of a harmful chemical or biohazard spill, which should be tended to as quickly as possible.
More than just practical, the white lab coat is also powerful status symbol. Lab coats have been white for a long time, and ever since they’ve been worn, they’ve been symbols for scientific rigor and academic excellence.
Not only should you feel proud when you wear your lab coat, patients feel better when they see their doctor wearing one. A recent study by Christopher M. Petrilli showed decisively that patients feel better about their check-ups and medical experiences when their physician or doctor wears a white lab coat.
For these reasons, manufacturers should be producing white lab coats; any other color would mean an unnecessary increase in price and could potentially undermine the coats’ utility and negatively impact patient experience in medical settings.
Naturally, pockets come to mind when thinking about what needs to be incorporated in a lab coat design. However, this consideration is even more important than what one might think.
Some lab coats come with slits on the sides made to be able to reach the wearer’s trouser pockets. This removes the need to use extra fabric to incorporate more pockets that you “don’t need” because your pants already have pockets.
If this sounds like a logical reason to not have pockets on your coat, chances are you’re a man.
Unfortunately, women’s pants are not generally well-endowed when it comes to pocket sizes, that is, if there are any real pockets on the pants at all. These slits, then, are not only useless for many women scientists, but also dangerous for anyone wearing a slitted coat at all. Any opening in the fabric is an opportunity for hazardous substances to get through, either harming the clothing underneath or even harming the wearer.
In a non-lab setting, and if hazardous materials and chemical spills aren’t a concern at all, slits can be an acceptable option if you’d rather reach your pants pockets (assuming you have them). In general, however, it is better and safer for lab coats to incorporate their own pockets.
In a previous article, we talked about what goes into a fabric. The Dr-James lab coats’ 65/35 polyester-cotton LABTEX blend is a fantastic material for lab coats in a variety of settings, but it isn’t possible to say that any material is best for all situations.
MIT provides the following information to help decide what kind of material is best for every situation:
When dealing with general chemical, biological, or radioisotope hazards, MIT recommends a poly-cotton blend, at least 65% polyester. These kinds of blends are flammable and are not to be used when dealing with pyrophoric chemicals, but they can absolutely be fluid resistant (be sure to check with the manufacturer). These blends can protect you from chemical spills and are also lightweight and breathable. Polyester-cotton blends with a high polyester to cotton ratio are the most common kinds of blends found in lab coat fabric.
When it comes to corrosives, highly flammable materials, pyrophoric chemicals and chemical spill risks, the appropriate material to go for is Shieldtec. Shieldtec is flame resistant and offers good splash resistance against corrosives and polar solvents. This is not the fabric you would want to wear when dealing with non-polar solvents, however, as Shieldtec provides only minimal protection against them. As far as comfort goes, Shieldtec is fairly breathable.
If highly flammable materials, pyrophoric chemicals, welding and arcflashes are what you need protection against, then Nomex is your best bet. Nomex is highly flame resistant, but it offers only limited splash resistance, making it a not-too-adequate protection against chemical spills. Like Shieldtec, Nomex is also pretty breathable.
High contamination risks or biohazards in general will require reusable, fluid-resistant lab coats. Lab coats made with this material are not flame resistant, but the fronts are very fluid resistant. The backs are not fluid resistant, but this is only in order to make sure at least some of the coat is breathable, keeping it altogether somewhat comfortable to wear.
Now, when is cotton okay to wear? Remember, cotton is quite flammable and not at all splash or fluid resistant—just think of how long it takes your cotton shirts to dry. Not every lab is going to be dealing with harmful substances, however. Cotton is a good choice to be used in lab coats when the laboratory deals with minimal acid handling, if any at all. There should be no splash risks either. Even with a very low safety risk, cotton lab coats should almost always be accompanied by an apron over-top, just to make sure there is some splash and fluid resistance.
Again, while there is no one “perfect” way to make a lab coat appropriate for every situation, there are many guidelines that manufacturers should follow in order to ensure an effective and safe product:
- Lab coats should have long sleeves and never be baggy.
- Lab coats should be fastened with metal snap-fasteners for effective fastening and quick removal.
- Lab coats should be white for both practical and symbolic reasons.
- And lab coats should always incorporate pockets to be fair to women scientists as well as to be safer in general.
As far as materials go, lab coats should be crafted with a fabric that is appropriate for the environment—a polyester lab coat has no place in a lab coat that’ll be used for dealing with pyrophoric chemicals, and a cotton lab coat has no place in a laboratory that is prone to chemical spills.
All of these considerations put together make up the Dr-James recommended guidelines by which lab coat manufacturers and providers can ensure a safe, effective, appropriate and altogether well-designed lab coat.