A Guide to Nursing Dress Codes

Charmaine Robinson, MSN-Ed, RN
Updated May 13, 2024
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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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If you’re wondering, “What do nurses wear?” you’re in the right place. Nursing dress codes can be tedious, but they aren’t as strict as they once were. Explore this nurse dress code guide to prepare for clinical training and work days.

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What is the Dress Code for Nurses?

Dress codes establish the nurse’s professional identity and ensure safe delivery of care. Nursing dress codes can vary by organization. You can learn more about an organization’s dress code by reviewing its policy or visiting the human resources department.

Most nursing dress codes include these four main elements:

  1. 1


    Nursing dress codes should display professionalism through uniformity and an overall modest appearance.

  2. 2


    Nursing dress codes allow nurses to complete tasks conveniently and comfortably. Scrubs should be stretchy or loose-fitting to accommodate bending and quick movements.

  3. 3


    Nursing dress codes should keep nurses and patients from experiencing physical harm. Jewelry should be limited to prevent injuries during bedside care.

  4. 4

    Infection Control

    Nursing dress codes help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Clothing and hair should be clean to avoid transmission of bacteria and other pathogens.

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.

Nurses’ uniforms should still give a welcoming first impression and signal professionalism, skill, and knowledge. However, not all nurses accept their uniforms as a symbol of pride and professionalism.

Nurses may want the freedom to express themselves and work in comfortable clothing. Patients deserve 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 workers, nutritionists)

Common Nurse Dress Code Requirements

Healthcare organizations and nursing schools have dress codes to maintain the safety and professional image of their workers and students. While most nursing dress codes follow similar guidelines, differences can relate to scrub color and style, which can vary per unit/department, jewelry piercing location and type, and hair color.

Clothing Requirements for Nurses

Evidence shows that patients perceive they are receiving better care when the nurse looks professional. The look of your clothing should reflect professionalism at all times.

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    Scrubs give nurses a professional look, leading policies surrounding scrub appearance tend to be fairly strict. Your nursing school or employer will approve certain colors. Some organizations offer a scrub allocation fund to help nurses pay for new scrubs if the dress code changes or they require a certain type of attire. Generally, scrubs should be neat, free of rips and tears, non-revealing, and fit to allow you to move, stretch, and bend freely and safely.

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    Professional Attire

    Professional attire consists of a neat, clean appearance, including in your hygiene and grooming practices. Maintaining a professional appearance includes showering/bathing daily and engaging in proper oral care. Body odor and cigarette/tobacco odors should be avoided in clinical settings as these smells can be bothersome to patients. Proper grooming and keeping clothing wrinkle-free can contribute to a nurse’s professionalism.

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    Undergarments should not be visible through your scrubs or when you bend or move around. Properly fitting scrubs can help to keep undergarments covered. Wearing undergarments that match your skin tone can help prevent their visibility through your scrubs. Visible undergarments are considered unprofessional and can be offensive to patients.

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    Socks or Stockings

    Nurses should wear above-the-ankle socks or stockings at all times in clinical settings. Some nursing schools require socks to match the color of the scrub uniform, but others allow for variability. Wearing socks and stockings helps nurses and nursing students appear neat and professional in the clinical setting.

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    Clinical settings often allow you to wear short-sleeve or long-sleeve undershirts. If undershirts are visible from underneath scrub tops/jackets, bright colors should be avoided to maintain professionalism. Try to choose a color similar to your scrub uniform. Consider the possible visibility of your undergarments when choosing a scrub style.

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    While some nursing schools do not allow students to wear scrub jackets or lab coats during patient care due to the risk of transmitting harmful substances, they may allow them in non-bedside areas. If permitted, the style and color should be school-approved and match the rest of the scrub uniform. In workplace settings, scrub jackets are mostly permitted, but check your employer’s dress code policy to be sure.

Grooming Requirements

Proper grooming is necessary to maintain a professional appearance and keep patients safe and comfortable. Check your school or employer’s dress code policy for specific information, as grooming requirements vary among organizations.

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    Offensive tattoos (e.g., obscene, discriminatory, or threatening) are considered unprofessional and should be covered at all times. Some nursing schools and employers allow non-offensive tattoos to remain visible as long as they are on areas away from the face or neck. Others require all tattoos to be covered.

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    Some organizations are strict with the location, size, and amount of piercings you can have. In general, small ear lobe piercings are permitted. Gauges or large holes in the ear lobes are not permitted without a flat plug earring to fill the hole. Some employers allow one small nose piercing.

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    Facial Hair

    Facial hair must be clean, neat, and trimmed. Stubble is not appropriate. Poorly groomed facial hair is considered unprofessional, as beards and other facial hair can harbor bacteria that can cause infections in patients. False facial hair, such as adhesive mustaches, beards, or eyebrows, is also not allowed in some organizations.

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    Hair should be clean, off the shoulders and neck, and secured behind your ears. Long, unsecured hair can interfere with care activities and transfer bacteria from one surface to another. Be sure hair is not in your face, because improper vision can lead to medical errors. Hair color should be neutral and not distracting.

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    Fingernails must be clean and trimmed short when working with patients. Some organizations specify a maximum fingernail length, such as no more than one-quarter inch past your finger. Artificial nails are not permitted, as bacteria can grow underneath the nails and cause patient infections. Some healthcare centers do not allow gel or dipped nail polish because it lasts for a prolonged time. Some employers allow nurses to wear neutral-colored polish on their natural nails as long as the polish is not chipped.

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    Heavy makeup is not permitted for nurses and nursing students in clinical settings. Some nursing schools prohibit false eyelashes, including extension lashes. In some organizations, tattooed makeup is allowed if it is not distracting. Makeup should be modest and appear natural to maintain a professional appearance when interacting with patients.

Dress Code Requirements

Although stringent at times, nursing dress codes prioritize safety. When choosing accessories to wear in clinical settings, consider you and your patient’s safety.

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    Head Coverings

    Head coverings are only permitted in clinical settings when they are part of the scrub uniform (e.g., surgical cap), worn for religious purposes, or required for health/safety reasons. Nurses and nursing students who need special accommodations should refer to their organizations for accommodations. All head coverings must comply with health and safety regulations.

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    Jewelry requirements vary among organizations, with nursing schools applying the strictest requirements. Some schools allow one ring on each hand, while others allow just one ring without stones. All earrings should be small and non-dangling to avoid snagging. Ensure that earrings are secured with a backing to avoid them falling out and contaminating surfaces or open wounds. Nose rings and bracelets are typically not allowed, excluding medical alert bracelets.

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    Perfumes, colognes, scented lotions, and aftershave products should not be worn around patients as the smell can be nauseating or bothersome, especially to very ill patients. While body odor can be equally bothersome, adequate hygiene and deodorants can help. Avoid overly fragrant hair products, too.

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    ID Badges

    Nurses and nursing students should wear ID badges approved by their employers or schools. Badges should face forward and clearly display your image, name, and title. Some organizations require badges to be worn in a certain area of the body or attached with specific devices, like lanyards, reels, or clips.

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    As with jewelry, the number of watches is limited in most nurse dress codes. Organizations generally allow you to wear only one watch. Digital and analog watches are acceptable, so long as they display a second hand or second count. Some nursing schools allow students to wear smartwatches if they have second-hand capabilities, notifications are turned off, and the watch is only used for clinical purposes.

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    Nursing shoes should be clean and free of odor. For safety, shoes should be non-permeable, low-heeled, and non-slip. Body fluids and other liquids can spill onto the floor or onto your shoes, increasing your risk for falls and infection. Nursing schools are more strict with this policy. Shoe color is dependent on the organization.

Protective Equipment in Nurses’ Uniforms

While nursing uniforms provide some level of protection for nurses and patients, nurses working in certain settings and caring for particular patients may require additional attire to help protect themselves and their patients from infection.

  • Gowns: Surgical gowns are worn in operating/procedural rooms. Non-surgical gowns are worn as part of your uniform when caring for patients in contact or reverse isolation.
  • Face Masks: Face masks are worn as part of droplet precautions when caring for patients with certain contagious conditions. Masks are also worn during sterile procedures like central line dressing changes.
  • Surgical Caps: You may be required to wear a surgical cap in the operating/procedural room or when caring for patients in special contact isolations, such as potential exposure to scabies.
  • Disposable Gloves: Disposable gloves are a part of universal precautions and should be worn by all nurses when in contact with medications, chemicals, or a patient’s bodily fluids.

Nurse Dress Codes After Nursing School

Healthcare organizations today are tasked with cultivating an environment where nurses can express themselves. Strict nursing dress codes may impede a nurse’s personal expression. For this reason, many workplaces have lifted restrictions like sock/shoe color or visibility of certain tattoos.

Since nursing students are not licensed yet, nursing schools tend to be stricter with dress codes due to potential legal exposure. Working nurses are allowed more freedom because they practice under their own licenses. After graduation, new nurses may find more relaxed policies in their first nursing roles.

Advice for Nurses and Nursing Students on Following Dress Code Requirements

Nursing dress codes can feel restricting, but they are meant to keep you and your patients safe. Following your organization’s dress code will help you maintain a professional appearance, which can lead to trusting relationships with patients. Personal expression is helpful to your well-being, but you should prioritize safety when dressing for your shift and buying accessories.

  • Does your watch have a way to count seconds? Accurately assessing your patient’s heart rate helps to keep them safe.
  • Is your hair falling into your face? Clear vision helps you to avoid making mistakes while delivering patient care.
  • Are your shoes non-slip? With proper footwear, you can significantly reduce your risk of falling in the workplace.

In short: What do nurses wear? Nurses wear practical clothing and accessories to maintain professionalism and prevent harm to themselves and their patients.

Stay up to date by regularly reviewing your organization’s dress code policy. Visit your school’s nursing department office or your employer’s human resources department if you have additional questions.

Page last reviewed on March 21, 2024

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