Scrubs and Uniforms: Are Garments Spreading Infections?

Several studies have found that scrubs, uniforms, even healthcare workers’ ties can harbor harmful bacteria. While studies have yet to conclusively prove the role of such garments in actually spreading infection, common sense about the likelihood has led many healthcare facilities to institute relevant precautions. Those precautions include things like encouraging healthcare workers to change to civilian clothes before leaving the facility and providing either in-house or contracted third-party laundering of scrubs and uniforms.

If scrubs are carrying harmful bacteria, then at least the perception, if not the reality, that uniforms are spreading infection would make it inadvisable to wear scrubs outside the facility, especially in sandwich shops and produce markets. Even with the best staff intentions, home laundering water temperatures are sometimes inadequate to eliminate resistant bacteria. The heat of ironing would help, but compliance with simply washing uniforms is uneven at best.

A quick review of a few studies explains why some institutions are taking the conservative approach despite the absence of conclusive evidence:

  • One study found that bioburden found on scrubs laundered at home prior to use was greater than those laundered at the healthcare facility or a third-party healthcare laundry after the latter had been worn for a day in the operating room.
  • Another study found potentially dangerous bacteria on more than 50 percent of doctors’ and nurses’ uniforms tested.
  • Half of the ties worn by doctors and medical students were found to harbor several pathogens, compared to only 10 percent of the ties of security guards at the same facility.