How to Choose the Right Lab Coat (Design, Fit, & Fabric)
With all the different types of lab coats out there, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out what you need.
After all, you definitely don’t want to show up to your chemistry lab in a polyester-cotton lab coat and risk exposing yourself to severe burns.
But do you really need that expensive Nomex lab coat? And should you get a button or snap closure -- or maybe Velcro?
This guide will take you through:
- The function and types of lab coats
- What lab coat design is best for you
- How to get the right lab coat fit
- What lab coat fabric to choose
So let’s get into it.
A. Why is Wearing a Lab Coat Important?
Lab coats first came about as a symbol of scientific progress in the 19th century.
Much like a beekeeper’s suit or a blacksmith’s heavy apron, the long white coat afforded its wearers a degree of protection. They also functioned as a uniform to distinguish the quacks and pseudoscientists from real science practitioners.
But since it’s made of cloth, lab coats are actually meant as the last line of defence. When there are more potential hazards present, they’re usually combined with other lab safety protocols and equipment such as gloves, goggles, and face shields.
Here are 7 reasons to wear a lab coat:
- Protect your skin and street clothes from incidental spills, splashes, and unexpected reactions
- Provide a barrier against heat and fire with fire-retardant and heat-resistant fabric
- Prevent cross-contamination or the spread of contagion, as long as the coat isn’t worn out of the lab
- Keep your sleeves from interfering with your work, provided the sleeve length is appropriate or you use knitted/elastic cuffs
- Provide an easily-removable barrier in the event that the lab coat catches fire or there’s a dangerous spill
- Identify you as a member of the scientific or medical profession
- Build trust with patients or clients, as they feel greater comfort and confidence in physicians who are wearing lab coats
B. Types of Lab Coats
Lab coats are typically categorised by the protection they offer. For example:
- Splash-resistant (or liquid-resistant)
But there are also lab coats not worn for protection, such as the consultation coat (a short white coat) that medical professionals sometimes wear. These function as identification and extra storage more than protection.
Then there are variants such as the Howie-style lab coat, popular in UK clinical laboratories. This is a full-coverage wrap-around polycotton lab coat that looks similar to a chef’s uniform. The design minimizes pathogen contact with skin and street clothes, making it ideal for labs working with biological and genetically modified materials.
C. Lab Coat Design: What’s Best?
A good lab coat design is both functional and well-fitted. The best lab coats:
- Protect you well while not getting in the way with loose material
- Give you good range of movement
- Have adequate storage with chest pocket and side pockets
- Are easy to remove, but won’t accidentally fly open
- Fasten close to the collar (unless you’re not using it for protection in the first place)
- Are comfortable for use throughout the day
The specific lab coat design that would be best for you depends on the hazards you face along with the other PPE you’ll be wearing.
Here’s a quick checklist on the design features to note when purchasing your lab coat:
- Sleeve length: Unless you’re wearing a short sleeve lab coat, your sleeves should be long enough to cover your wrist when your arms are extended in front of you -- but not so long that you have to roll it up.
- Coat length: Goes to at least mid-thigh (ideally above the knees) and allows you to sit and stand easily.
- Cuffs: Tight, with no loose material that could accidentally come into contact with hazardous substances. Preferably knitted or elasticated.
- Buttons, zips, velcro, or snap fasteners: For easy removal, snap fasteners or velcro are ideal. The latter does degrade over time though.
- Number and size of pockets: Has enough storage capacity for your needs.
- Material: Provides appropriate protection based on the dangers you may encounter. (See this detailed fabric guide for more info.)
D. What’s the Right Lab Coat Fit?
As a protective barrier, your lab coat should cover any exposed skin as well as the bulk of your street clothes. Here are the 4 measurements to take note of when measuring your lab coat:
1. Shoulder Width
Your lab coat’s shoulder seams should extend as wide as your shoulders -- maybe even a bit longer to give you room to comfortably reach forward and grab stuff while working.
If you’re working with hazardous materials in the lab, safety standards dictate that there shouldn’t be any exposed skin between your gloves and the sleeves of your lab coat. But you also don’t want the sleeves to be so long they need to be rolled up.
To achieve this, the sleeves of your lab coat should come to just above your thumb when your arms are hanging by your side. In a working position (i.e. elbows bent), the ends of the sleeves should come to your wrist.
(You could also go with knitted or elastic cuffs so getting the sleeve length exactly right won’t be as much of an issue.)
3. Length of Lab Coat
Your lab coat should also fit well around your torso and hips, allowing you to sit, stand, and move your arms easily. The length of the coat should come down to at least your thighs -- if it’s above your thighs, it may be mistaken as a consultation coat.
Your lab coat circumference should allow you to close your lab coat fully with buttons, zips, velcro, or snap fasteners. If you plan on layering with sweaters or sweatshirts underneath, go up a size.
If you’re tall or have long arms, this may be tricky. Lab coats that are long enough to match your height and limbs typically also have a lot of excess fabric around the circumference. But wearing an overly large, billowy lab coat doesn’t make for good lab safety, after all!
This is especially true for women, as lab coats tend to be unisex and therefore have far too much material around the circumference.
If you can’t get a slim fit lab coat in your size, we’d recommend going up a size or two and then bringing the coat to the tailor. The tailor should be able to cut away and use the excess fabric to better fit your measurements.
5. Other Notes on Sizing
Western brands tend to run bigger than the Asian fit. In addition, the sleeve and hem lengths are also longer.
Asian fits such as Japanese brands have a smaller shoulder frame, shorter sleeves, and hem lengths.
Be sure to look up the manufacturer’s sizing guide for more accurate measurements. When ordering for a team, find out the size range required before committing to order in large quantities.
When in doubt about size, always go for the bigger option. It’s easier to alter sleeve and hem lengths for an oversized coat rather than procure the right material for an undersized one.
E. What Lab Coat Fabric Should You Choose?
Manufacturers usually blend two or more materials in a bid to balance costs with the level of protection. Your exact lab coat fabric specifications depend on the dangers you face.
In brief, these are the types of materials commonly used for lab coats:
- Cotton: These types of lab coats are comfortable and breathable, but not flame-resistant unless otherwise specified. 100% cotton lab coats are often used in the medical industry.
- Polyester: This adds a bit of liquid resistance to the coats, but should not be used where there are flammable hazards.
- Polycotton: Cheap and durable, polycotton lab coats are good for work settings with no open flames or pyrophoric materials.
- Nylon: Strong and lightweight with a bit of protection against liquids.
- Modacrylic: Offers good protection against chemicals and solvents along with a natural resistance to fire.
- Rayon: Cheaper than 100% cotton, but similar in that it doesn’t have much liquid or fire resistance.
- Polypropylene: Commonly used for disposable lab coats, this has a high liquid resistance. Mostly used in largely non-hazardous environments, like clean rooms and animal handling.
- Tyvek: High durability, tear-resistant, and waterproof. Used in hazmat suits or in manufacturing or industrial settings with risks of fine particles (such as asbestos).
- Nomex: This is the main fire retardant and fluid resistant lab coat used today. When combined with Shieldtec, it offers both chemical and fire resistance. It’s one of the most expensive choices on the market, but it’s ideal for settings with extreme flammable and chemical hazards.