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What are Scrubs?

By Donna Reynolds
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Scrubs are a uniform that generally consists of a simple, cotton, short-sleeved shirt and drawstring pants. They are worn in a medical environment. The name scrubs is derived from the practice of physicians thoroughly washing or scrubbing their hands before performing surgery. Traditionally, scrubs are light green, but modern doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel are choosing scrubs in brighter colors and even patterns.

It’s hard to believe, but up until the end of the 19th century, surgeons performed operations dressed in street clothing, which they covered with an apron similar to those worn by butchers. Operating rooms were no more than large auditoriums, and surgeries were performed without the benefit of a sterile environment. Surgeons did not wash their hands before operating, and instruments were not sterilized. It is no wonder, then, that in the middle of the 19th century, nearly 50% of surgical patients died of sepsis.

Joseph Lister, a British surgeon, was concerned about the number of deaths among his post-surgical patients. He began studying the work of Louis Pasteur, who had been doing bacterial research, and as a result, Lister began using carbolic acid to clean patients’ wounds. After nine months, his patients were no longer dying of sepsis, and ultimately he began operating in antiseptic conditions.

Antiseptic procedures were slow to catch on, however, and despite the fact that nurses had begun to wear white uniforms in the early 1900s, it wasn’t until the 1940s that surgeons began routinely wearing special clothing in the operating room. Early surgical clothing consisted of gowns and surgical drapes, and these were customarily made of white cotton. However, white clothing was found to reflect light, and in the 1950s, the switch was made to green.

The simple green scrub suit first became popular in the 1970s. Medical personnel found the uniform comfortable and functional. Hospital administrators were also impressed with how cost-effective scrubs were, as well as with their easy maintenance.

Today, many hospitals use a variety of colors to differentiate between departments, while surgical scrubs continue to be primarily green. Pediatric staff often wear scrubs decorated with cartoon characters, putting their young patients and their parents at ease. Many medical office personnel also wear scrubs. In addition, scrubs are also sold as casual wear and sleepwear.

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Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Jan 11, 2015

I remember the scrubs fad. I wore them as pajamas a lot. They're loose fitting and nearly indestructible. I see people in doctor's offices now who wear scrub jackets with cute patterns on them.

I remember when all you could get were the solid colors, but it's nice that people who have to wear scrubs to work can at least get them in fun patterns that add some variety to their wardrobe.

There's something to be said for knowing you'll be wearing scrubs to work every day, though. You don't have to hunt for something to wear and you don't spend nearly as much money on a work wardrobe as some people have to do.

By Pippinwhite — On Jan 10, 2015

Scrubs are great summer casual wear. They're cool and they wash in the washing machine. I used to have several scrub tops in college and they were my favorite things to wear to an 8 a.m. class. They were actually kind of a fad in the late 80s, and people not in the medical profession wore them all the time.

I'm thinking of hitting the local store that sells scrubs to get a couple of tops for just knocking around in this summer. They're usually pretty reasonably priced, too. I can usually pick up a top for not much more than $10, if it's just a solid color.

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