Safe science garb: Lab coats

What would you do to improve the white sack?

A guest post by my C&EN colleague and sewing aficionado Cheryl Hogue.

As Halloween approaches, demand certainly must rise for lab coats. They are essential for portraying everyone from Beaker of “Sesame Street” to characters from “Grey’s Anatomy.” Nothing says “scientist” like a lab coat.

Of course, lab coats are also required gear in many (most? all?) chemistry labs.

What makes for a good lab coat? ChemBark’s recent blog post on buying a lab coat got me thinking about this. It also sparked a mad desire in me to design a lab coat for a woman, tailored to following curves a bit while not hugging the body. On many women, including me, many unisex lab coats look like white sacks with lapels and pockets.

But before I could break out my sewing machine and go totally “Project Runway,” I began pondering the characteristics of a good lab coat. Jyllian pitched in and checked with the consulting firm Advanced Chemical Safety. She found there are neither regulatory nor voluntary standards for lab coats.

So now, I throw it open to the chemistry community – what are your criteria for a lab coat? Should the characteristics of a coat vary depend on the type of work done in the lab?

First, there’s color. I’ve run into folks who believe lab coats should always be white so any contamination on the garment can be detected easily. But others, like ChemBark, opt for colors, like royal blue.

Roomy pockets at or below the waist seem like a must. How many of you use a chest pocket to stash a pen? How essential are slits in the side to access pockets in your street clothes?

Then there are the ends of the sleeves. Should they remain open, be fastened at a cuff, or end in a knit wristlet like the ones found on this welder’s jacket?

Should the coat close with buttons, snaps, knots made from strips of fabric, or Velcro?

What’s the minimum length for a lab coat? Below the hips, mid-thigh, or below the knee?

Then there’s fabric. Should chemists take a cue from NASCAR drivers and opt for a flame-resistant material, such that used for these lab coats? Or is the standard, and less expensive, polyester or poly-cotton lab coat appropriate for most circumstances?

What are your key considerations for a lab coat?

(Jyllian adds: Katherine Haxton of Endless Possibilities also posted about lab coats this week.)

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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10 Comments

  1. Our lab coats are made of flame resistant/retardant material for those who work around combustible and flammable chemicals. Cotton will burn.

  2. In addition to lab coats that are shaped for women, can I add lab coats that are shaped for a variety of sizes? It’s hard enough to find a lab coat that sized for women at all, but if you’re a larger woman, it’s much harder. Most lab coats, even the ones for women, aren’t really made for someone with a large bust. It’s very hard to find a lab coat that will close over your chest if you’re a size D or above. Not to mention the snarky comments you get when you try to get fitted.

  3. @Kaen, I’m totally with you! I have to get a large size to button over the bust too, meaning the rest of the coat just bags off me. That’s one of the reasons I want to tailor my own. Also, plus-size women deserve nicely shaped lab coats to fit around their curves.

    @Matt Thanks for sharing about your lab’s practices. Does your lab have shared flame resistant/retardant lab coats?
    BTW, polyester will burn too. Some flame-resistant lab coats are made from cotton treated with a flame retardant.

  4. Sometimes my lab coat has been a fashion anti statement (I am NOT an administrative assistant, get over it) in which case shapeless is fine. But I think Matt’s comments should be expanded on. In addition to flames, are any of the lab materials hazardous? Potential contaminants to some lab process? Or, is the lab coat supposed to be useful garb for slurping tomato soup at one’s desk? Who else might have been using it? For what? Where is it washed? How often?

  5. Very interesting and important post. I think the style of lab coat chosen depends on the task the wearer will perform. For example, sleeves with knit cuffs would be useful if one is preparing standards in small volumetric flasks but would not be desirable for a coat that might be needed to be removed quickly. An individual may need two or more types.

  6. I’ve been lamenting about unisex labcoats since I started as a professional eight years ago. I was fresh out of college, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, and was shocked when my lab supervisor said there was no such thing as a woman’s lab-coat.

    Women have made such strides in so many professions and workplaces. How are there NOT lab coats designed for women? It would seem that there is moeny to be made in providing lab wear for women.

    Some of my personal requirements for a lab coat are currently met: nice big lower pockets, a good sized chest pocket for my pens, mid-thigh length and pale blue. I would object to wearing a white lab coat because I’m a large busted woman as well and to get a lab coat to fit my top might put me in danger of being harpooned after being mistaken for Moby Dick. The poly-cotton blend works fine for my lab.

    I think I would prefer closed sleeves of some sort and snap closures on everything. I can do without the slits in the side. As a woman with real hips the fabric sticks out and gets caught on anything waist level.

    When we will rise up and get the lab coats we need?

  7. Regarding cotton vs. polyester… well, my father suffered 4th degree burns some time ago and the polyester overalls in which he was working helped quite a bit because poly melts and burns onto the skin while cotton burns and falls off. I would never ever wear anything poly when there’s a risk of burns. In fact, fine wool could work the best, it’s naturally fire-retardant, recyclable, could be cheaper than Teflon or something high-tech and it is indeed used for car racers’ gear (which I know perfectly well since my father, again, spends most of his weekends messing around cars). The major concern would be that wool happily binds organic colourants so in no time, it would look very very messy. Wool is not exactly bleach-resistant, compared to plant fibres. In this regard, linen is the best but unless it is some really fine and expensive fabric, it’s hell to use for anything but tablecloths.

    I must admit that I hate lab coats for a purely irrational reason… I haven’t touched anything with buttons since I was three years old and learned how to throw a tantrum. Those thingies give me creps. I’m only in my second year of undergrad biology and although I was never inclined to lab work, I’m very strongly going for something, just about anything, that is made of field work only or where a slightly soiled T-shirt is not much of an issue. Should I indeed have to choose some lab gear, I’d go for black scrubs. Black goes for everything and one can’t see stains on it:)

  8. I’m on the health and safety committee at a large university. We identified two safety feature we want for lab coats 100% cotton and snaps, not buttons, for easy removal. But none of the usual supply houses have lab coats like that. I don’t think slits are a good idea, because pants can be contaminated.

  9. My work is more shop related than chemical, but if you are working around anything that can burn or throw sparks, GET RID OF THE POCKETS. Have spaces on a bench where you can put things down that you may need, or have a belt with closed pouches. But I can tell you from experience that big pockets in a position to catch sparks or burning splashes can be painful.

  10. Sliding a bit off topic (but hopefully generating a new line of discussion) I am happy to see the researcher in your photograph wearing good leather shoes. Feet are vulnerable in chemical spills (they’re at the bottom of the gravity well) and I’m trying to start a fight against cloth-topped sports shoes. Any opinions on this? Am I being unnecessarily draconian?

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