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The office dress code

Oct. 1, 2011
Why a standard dress code needs to be implemented

Why a standard dress code needs to be implemented

by Janice Hurley-Trailor

Even in the dental profession, where uniforms are traditional, the idea of a dress code can be emotionally charged. Team members might feel our natural human resistance to change. They might associate dress codes with negative past experiences. Since we express our identity through our appearance, guidelines for that expression might feel restrictive, leading us to initially reject those guidelines at first. Even the process of defining and implementing a dress code can be illuminating, showing everyone the interpersonal dynamics of the dental practice itself.

Figure 1: A great example of crisp white lab coats with logo embroidered on the left hand side of the coat and name tag placed on the right.

As a dental success consultant, I unequivocally recommend a dress code. The specifics on what to wear or not to wear can vary by practice, but, hands down, I recommend having universal but specific guidelines, and here’s why:

  • Professional and consistent dress throughout the office raises the patients’ perceptions of you. They take pride in having selected such a professional and organized practice.
  • Patients’ trust in your cleanliness and professionalism improves patient retention and compliance, thus improving practice success.
  • It builds team spirit and pride in your professionalism.
  • It decreases any concerns or confusion about what the doctor wants you to wear.
  • It decreases the amount of time the doctor (or doctor’s significant other) spends worrying about whether and how to correct a staff member’s dress issue.
  • It decreases staff judgments about another team member’s appearance and the tension that causes.
  • You never waste time worrying about your appearance, because you’re always confident that you are prepared to impress everyone you meet.
  • You become attractive to prospective team members who share your self-respect and professionalism themselves.

As a hygienist, you might not have the final decision-making authority, and it can be challenging to standardize anything as personal as clothing and shoes, makeup, and hair, but your opinions and positive attitudes can be a valuable contribution to the process.

Obviously, implementing any standard operating procedure or dress code is easiest if the personnel manual has been written since the inception of the practice. That way, anyone interviewing with an office can consider each specific guideline and decide whether or not to agree to those as a condition of employment. The emotional connection on each side is much lower. Also, as potential team members walk in and see you looking sharp, they know exactly what’s expected and whether they want to be a great match.

When is implementing a new dress code the hardest?

  • When decision makers are not confident and clear about what they want.
  • When some team members are asked to adhere to the dress code and others are not.
  • When the doctor isn’t the real leader in the office.
  • When people expect everyone to agree or like every aspect of the choices.
  • When realistic funds have not been allocated.

The more discriminating your target patient base, the more time, attention, and resources should be given to the quality and level of sophistication of attire.

Naturally, in a dental practice, the first question is “Scrubs or lab jackets?” I am a fan of lab jackets for the entire clinical team — for hygienists, assistants, and doctors alike. I don’t think it’s necessary to make a distinction between the doctors and the rest of the clinical team.

Figure 2: Sometimes it is necessary to have your lab jackets altered so that they are the right length in both the sleeves and the overall length.

For a while, it was the trend to wear black scrubs in dental practices, portraying themselves as boutique cosmetic dental practices. This can be attractive if the scrubs fit well, the office logo has been monogrammed on the left side, and if the men wear a black T-shirt under V-neck scrubs.

Either way, fit and style are as important in uniform decisions as in selecting any other article of clothing.

Choosing lab jackets

Choose a style with a built-in waistband fitting at your waistline. I prefer a faux waistband rather than an elastic waistband.

Fit the jacket to your shoulders first. Your arm and shoulder seam need to hit exactly on the outside of your shoulder.

If your team members come in many sizes and shapes, you might need to buy different brands of lab jackets to get the best fit for each. That’s OK. Fit first! The lab jacket, shirt, pants, and shoes are all chosen with one purpose in mind — to make you look as pressed, polished, and professional as possible.

Scrubs to avoid:

  • The color red — not a good color around bulls or dentistry.
  • Animal or cartoon characters. (Yes, even if you are an orthodontic or pediatric practice.)
  • Scrubs with wide boat neck collars.
  • Pastel colors that are unflattering to most skin tones.
  • Material that is too lightweight, inexpensive, and possibly translucent.
  • Pants with elastic on the ankles.
  • Tops with no shape — those you would expect to tuck into elastic-waisted scrub pants.
  • Tops longer than mid-hip.
  • Wide dolman sleeves.

Your dress code guidelines should also address consistency in these areas:

  • Foot attire
  • Jewelry
  • Nails
  • Hair
  • Makeup
  • Name tags

Janice Hurley-Trailor, BS, is a Dentistry’s Image Expert. Contact her at

Uniform Resources
Medelita (

  • Women’s lab coats: $84 to $128
  • Women’s scrubs: One style – nice, muted colors; tops, $46; pants $56; sizes: 0-16
  • Pants come in petite and tall lengths; no plus sizes
  • Men’s lab coats: $88 to $148
  • Men’s scrubs: One style, two colors of blue or a black to choose from; tops, $50; pants, $60
  • Men’s sizes go to 2XL and lab coats go from 36 to 52

Peaches Uniforms/MedCouture Label
You can see the MedCouture lines at; you can purchase MedCouture at

  • Women’s lab coats: $25 to $30, up to size 20
  • Women’s scrubs: New EZ Fabric in a few different styles with subtle two-tones; tops, $25; pants, $28 (suggested retail but many sale prices); sizes XS-3XL; pants come in petite and tall lengths
  • Men’s lab coats: $25, one style
  • Men’s scrubs: New EX Fabric in a few different styles; tops and pants each around $30 (again, suggested retail, but many sale prices)
  • Men’s sizes go to 3XL and lab coats go from 36 to 52
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