What are scrubs and how did a pandemic cause them to exist?

Scrubs. We’ve all seen them and most have been helped by someone wearing them. They’re synonymous with medical facilities around the world.

Scrubs get their name from when hospital staff sterilise themselves before surgery, a process called “scrubbing in”. But what actually constitutes hospital scrubs? How did they come to be used in hospitals? 

This article explains what scrubs are,  which scrubs are available and outlines the differences around surgical and non-surgical scrubs. It also touches on the extraordinary history of how a pandemic called for the need of scrubs in the first place.

Surgeons in theatre.Surgeons in theatre.
Surgeons in theatre

What are scrubs?

Why do people wear scrubs?

They are a kind of protective clothing designed to be worn by medical staff during times when they’re likely to come into contact with an infectious substance or bodily fluid. They protect the wearer from making contact with that substance by forming a barrier between them and it. This makes sure the medical environment is clean and safe for clinicians and patients.


Who wears scrubs?

They are worn mostly by medical staff who work within hospitals such as doctors and nurses, but anyone visiting a hospital can be asked to wear them. They are also worn by other medical industries such as vets, carers or midwives.


What do the different colours of scrubs mean?

They are used in both surgical and non-surgical settings and have different looks for each:

Surgical Scrubs

Surgical scrubs are almost always a solid colour, either light grey, light green, light blue or a light green-blue shade.

Surgical Scrubs by AlexandraSurgical Scrubs by Alexandra
Surgical Scrubs
Unisex Contrast Trim Scrubs by AlexandraUnisex Contrast Trim Scrubs by Alexandra
Unisex Contrast Trim Scrubs

Non-surgical scrubs

Non-surgical scrubs come in even more colours, designs and fits and can be worn as a full suit or just as a top. These are the ones you’ll often see ward nurses wearing.

How are scrubs cared for?

Dependent on the department, scrubs can either be washed via an industrial laundry or by the wearer themselves. Scrubs should always be cleaned after each wear, at a temperature of at least 60º to ensure they’re sterile and following infection control guidelines.

Sometimes disposable scrubs are worn to lower the risk of contamination; like when fighting highly infectious diseases such as Ebola.

What are the best medical scrubs?

Alexandra is the UK’s oldest and most-trusted creator of medical workwear – having been in existence since 1854. With a vast history of uniform creation and workwear manufacturing, Alexandra has been supplying medical professionals with scrubs for many years.

What do surgeons wear in the operating room?

Alexandra’s surgeon scrub suits do exactly what surgeons need them to. They’re lightweight and breathable with side vents to ensure surgeons remain comfortable throughout the long hours in theatre They come in a variety of solid colours to suit any workplace and are washable up to 60º in line with infection control. 

Classic Collar Tunic by AlexandraClassic Collar Tunic by Alexandra
Classic Collar Tunic

What uniform do nurses wear?

Alexandra have also been hard at work developing non-surgical nurse scrubs, for which they have a range of options including unisex and female fit tops.


Nursing Tunics

Most scrub tops are a mix of polyester and cotton fabric to ensure a wrinkle-free appearance, great colour retention and all are washable up to 60º in line with infection control. 


Nursing Trousers

Much like the polyester/cotton mix found in tunics, Alexandra have perfected the same material for trousers. This makes them wrinkle-free for a professional look and an elasticated waistband keeps them comfortable. Also washable up to 60º for infection control, Alexandra’s trousers are a great option for healthcare workwear. 

What alternatives to scrubs are there?

Alexandra also make dresses as an option for non-surgical nurses to wear.

Dress Tunic

Styles available include striped, zip-front and mandarin collar dresses. A dress makes a durable option for medical staff. Made from no-fade fabric and industry approved, Alexandra can provide quality nursing dresses at affordable prices. 

How did scrubs come to be worn in hospitals?

A pandemic led to the creation of scrubs!

What we know today as surgical scrubs have existed only for around 70 years. Until the mid-twentieth century, theatre staff didn’t wear any specialist uniform. This is because the mark of a good surgeon was seen as having clothing covered in bodily fluids. To be a surgeon was a high-class profession, and at the time people used the way they dressed to demonstrate their status.

Zip Front Dress Tunic by AlexandraZip Front Dress Tunic by Alexandra
Zip Front Dress Tunic

Why do doctors wear scrubs?

Scrubs began in 1918 when the Spanish Flu hit. Millions died due to the infectious disease, and with a growing understanding of how viruses and bacteria spread surgeons took to wearing masks.

By the 1940s, knowledge of viruses and wound infection had improved, and surgeons began wearing drapes and gowns in operating theatres. During this time scrubs would be white and tended to dazzle surgeons under the bright theatre lights, so their fabric changed to green. This stopped the dazzling and provided a high-contrast to the blood of surgery. 

The green prevented surgeons from being desensitised to the colour of the human body.


What do surgeons wear?

By the 1970s surgical attire had reached its modern state: a gauze or textile mask, cloth cap, cloth or synthetic surgical gown, latex gloves, and closed-toe shoes. 

This dress-code for scrubs was so successful it remains the same to this day.

A hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemicA hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic
A hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic

Where can I buy the best medical uniform or workwear scrubs from?

Alexandra’s long history of designing and making medical workwear means it’s the best place to buy a wide range of scrubs from. Visit the Alexandra.co.uk healthcare clothing website here.

Top features of medical scrubs infographicTop features of medical scrubs infographic
Top features of medical scrubs