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A Guide to Nursing Dress Codes

Rebecca Munday
Updated February 8, 2023
Reviewed by
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Dress codes for nurses can be complicated for new nurses and student nurses. Learn what to expect from your school’s or employer’s nurse dress code.
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Year after year, nurses continue to rank as the most honest and ethical profession in Gallup polls. Before a nurse can say a word, their uniform symbolizes their honesty, ethics, and training. But many nurses still find nurse dress codes restrictive and hard to follow.

Student nurses and newly licensed registered nurses (RN) have so much to do and think about before they enter a clinical setting. Dress codes for nurses only complicate preparing for clinical practice. You should not have to worry about what you wear on your first day as an RN or in clinical rotations.

Dive into what you need to know about dress codes for clinicals, simulation labs, and your first job after graduation. To create these guidelines, we looked at hospital employee dress code policies from across the U.S.

Why Do Nurses Wear Scrubs?

In the 1800s, as nurses began to receive more recognition and training as professionals, the nursing uniform helped distinguish trained nurses from untrained volunteers. As the years passed, the nursing uniform Florence Nightingale designed changed for improved functionality, easier cleaning, and gender neutrality.

Today, nurses’ uniforms still give a first good impression about nurses’ professionalism, skill, and knowledge. But not all nurses accept their uniforms as a symbol of pride and professionalism.

Nurses want the freedom to express themselves and work in comfortable clothing. Patients want nurses they can easily identify as professional, competent, and knowledgeable.

Healthcare settings side with patients. The guidelines may become less strict at your first registered nurse job than when you were a student nurse doing clinicals or labs. The color of the scrubs you wear may vary based on the facility or department where you work.

However, all healthcare facilities want nurses who:

  • Look as professional as they act
  • Give a good first impression
  • Represent their facility
  • Represent their specific department, in some cases
  • Appear knowledgeable and skilled
  • Can be easily identified by patients as the RN rather than any of the other professionals wearing scrubs (e.g. techs, nursing assistants, social work, nutrition)
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Common Nurse Dress Code Requirements

A dress code for nurses is often based on supporting patient safety, staff safety, infection control, professionalism, cultural competence, and patient satisfaction.

Specific dress code requirements vary based on the setting. A clinical site may have different guidelines than its university partners. The pediatric department floor may have different guidelines than the emergency department.

Clothing Requirements for Nurses

The following is a list of common clothing requirements for nurses. Nursing students should pay special attention to requirements related to scrubs, jackets, and undergarments. Check with your university or employer’s dress code policy for more specific information.

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    Scrubs must be a certain color to represent your facility and department. As a student nurse, your scrub top may have your school’s logo embroidered onto it. Scrub pants must be an approved color. Check your dress code policy to find out what your approved colors are and where you can buy scrubs for your labs and clinical rotations.

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    Professional Attire

    When you are not providing direct clinical care, you may need to wear professional attire. Jeans are not acceptable. Skirts can be no shorter than just above the knee. Slacks and solid-colored blouses or button-up tops are recommended.

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    Undergarments may not show through the scrubs. Consider wearing undergarments similar in tone to your skin color so you do not have to worry about someone seeing them.

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    Sock or Stockings

    Some settings require nurses to wear socks or stockings of certain colors with their uniform.

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    Some facilities do not allow you to wear an undershirt under your scrub top. Others require the shirt to be a certain color if you wear it. Check with your university or employer for clarification.

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    Nurses may only wear lab coats or uniform jackets over their scrubs, depending on the facility. Student nurses can purchase scrub jackets with their school’s logo. Non-uniform jackets are not allowed.

Other Dress Code Requirements for Nurses

Grooming Requirements

Grooming requirements nurses should keep in mind include hair, fingernails, and piercings. Check with your university or employer’s nurse dress code for more specific information in these areas.

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    Tattoos cannot be offensive. If they are, you must cover them. Some institutions require all tattoos to be covered at all times regardless of the time of year.

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    No piercings other than earlobes. Some facilities may allow you to cover piercings with a bandaid.

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    Facial Hair

    Facial hair must be kept neat and trimmed, so it does not interfere with patient or provider safety. Every facility has different specifications about what they consider an appropriate length.

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    Hair must be clean, neat, and kept off the collar. If your hair extends past your chin, you need to keep it up at all times so it does not cover your vision when examining the patient or fall on the patient.

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    Fingernails must be kept clean and trim so they do not scratch the patient. Fingernails can be no longer than your finger or a ¼ inch past your finger, depending on your facility. If you wear nail polish, you should wear light or neutral colors and make sure the polish is not chipped. Artificial nails, or any type of nail that is not your natural fingernail, is not allowed.

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    Makeup should be subtle, natural, and not distracting or extreme.

Dress Code Requirements

Dress code requirements for accessories include watches, ID badges, and shoes. Check with your university or employer’s dress code policy for more specific information.

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    Head Coverings

    Head coverings cannot be worn unless they are for religious, infectious control, or safety reasons. They may need to be a certain color to match the uniform.

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    Earrings and other jewelry must not pose a threat to infection control or patient safety. Policies about what is safe and allowed vary between facilities. Some institutions limit the size or number of earrings. Some require no bracelets or a limited number of necklaces. Others limit the size of the stone in rings so they do not scratch the patients.

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    Perfume, fragrant lotions, cologne, and other strong scents are prohibited due to possible allergic reactions.

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    ID Badges

    Nurses must wear ID badges above the waist with the photo facing out, so the name is visible at all times.

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    Watches need a second hand, so you can record vitals, chart labs, and give medication in a timely manner. Watches should be waterproof for handwashing purposes.

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    Shoes must be leather or synthetic leather with closed heels and toes and non-skid soles. Some facilities require shoes to be white. Some facilities do not allow sneakers, mesh, canvas shoes, or clogs.

Nurse Dress Codes After Nursing School

Compared to the dress code for nursing students, hospitals often take a more casual approach. They lay out guidelines for when to wear professional attire and when to wear scrubs, but many of the other dress code requirements are left to the discretion of the nurses.

Hospitals still want nurses to keep infection control, professionalism, cultural competence, patient satisfaction, patient safety, and their own safety in mind when they dress themselves.

However, hospitals do not get hyper-specific with their dress codes the way dress codes for nursing students do.

Advice for Nursing Students on Following Dress Code Requirements

If you have clinical rotations or simulations coming up, check both your school of nursing dress code policy and the clinical facility’s policy. They may overlap or differ.

Remember, facilities do not require uniforms because they wish to stifle your personal expression. They make you wear a uniform so patients see you as a knowledgeable, skilled nurse who respects their preferences and opinions.

Underneath all the details and specifics of those policies, nursing schools and clinical facilities care about six things, in no particular order:

  • Infection control
  • Staff safety
  • Patient safety
  • Patient satisfaction
  • Cultural competence
  • Professionalism

If you can think about your appearance in those terms rather than just in terms of your personal preference or expression, you should not have any trouble meeting all dress code requirements for nurses, no matter how complicated they seem.


Page Last Reviewed: September 12, 2022

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