13 min read
We asked 1000 scientists what they love and what they hate about their lab coats. The researchers self-identified the type of lab work they do (i.e. chemical, biological, solid-state), their level of study, and most respondents optionally included anonymized personal details like their gender, height, weight, and build type.
This unprecedented data set uncovered several areas where the typical lab coat needs improvement. These deficiencies cause lost productivity, safety hazards, and even negative effects on mental health. As a community-driven design project, we believe we can fix these problems if we work together. Read on to find out how.
Many scientists wear their lab coats more often than any other single clothing item they own.
Working in a poorly-fitting lab coat is like owning just one pair of jeans that are too short at the ankles, too tight in the thighs, and too big around your waist. How would that affect your productivity and satisfaction at work?
A full 9 out of 10 scientists reported at least one issue with the fit of their lab coat. 97% of women and 88% of men had a problem with the fit around their body, while 92% of women and 90% of men had at least one complaint with their sleeves.
“I am not surprised that 90% of scientists don’t have a lab coat that fits them well because I’m in that category.” commented Daisy Y. Shu, Ph.D. (@EyeDaisyShu), an Instructor in the Department of Ophthalmology of Harvard Medical School. “I think there need to be better systems in place for getting properly fitted with a lab coat when being inducted into a new laboratory.”
In most body types, lab coats were typically too big. It’s counter-intuitive, but this problem is prevalent in curvier women. An average unisex lab coat has a cylindrical profile. Average builds can often find a “cylinder” that fits them top to bottom. Curvier women have to fit that cylinder to the widest part of their body. This leaves the rest of their body swimming in fabric. This fabric can catch on corners of equipment, knock over glassware, and dip into hazardous or contaminated experiments. When no options fit you well, it’s more comfortable to go with the larger size that doesn’t restrict your movement so you can do your job.
Fit can also have an unseen impact on self-esteem and the accessibility of scientific research. Although it wasn’t a direct question, the free-form “rant” section let these voices be heard. Below are just a few of the dozens of comments on the topic:
“Lab coats are not made to fit short fat women at all. To get one that fits around my butt, everything else is way too big. The shoulders are so big it's a joke. My lab ordered uniforms and they fit me so poorly that they were making it hard to do my work. I was just leaving it open which is stupid - why wear one at all?”
“Sometimes I feel confident, like ‘look at me, a badass woman in science’ and then catch a glimpse of my reflection and see a white rectangle with a messy bun and feel a little less badass. I could be a white hourglass with a messy bun. Is that too much to ask?”
Commenting on the issues these women face, Emily Wade, a Ph.D. candidate in Chemistry elaborated: “As a woman in chemistry this is definitely an issue as having a muscular lower body the lab coats are definitely too boxy at the waist and too tight behind. This makes it especially difficult to work with the lower button closed with proper body mechanics without compromising the comfortable fit of the lab coat. It makes it difficult to bend over without worrying about undoing a button or accidentally ripping the coat even though it fits fine standing. Lab coats should be designed for body mechanics as well as protection with the proper fit.”
Another respondent went on to describe how these issues can build up barriers by affecting mental health:
“No matter where I shop for a lab coat, I feel horrible about myself afterward like there’s something wrong with me. Reaffirming I’m not the body type I’m ‘supposed’ to be. I am a curvy woman; I have petite shoulders but wide hips. I have to choose between buttons popping open at my hips if I bend, sit, or take too long a stride OR I can have the hips fit but up top, I look like a hot air balloon. Extra fabric gets in the way and just makes me look awful. I get really self-conscious whenever I have to put my lab coat on. Either way, I feel bad about myself - like science fields aren’t meant for ‘fat’ people.“
A brief survey of major lab coat suppliers shows that most offer sizes down to “Small” and very few offer “Extra Small”. Of those, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a size chart that would let the buyer know if it will fit them well (and many of these are non-returnable).
Women who self-identified as “petite” were generally shorter than 5’ 4” (162 cm) and under 140 lbs (63 kg). Our data show that petite women were more dissatisfied with their lab coat fit than any other body type. 73% reported their lab coats as too boxy at the waist, 50% said they were also too boxy at the shoulders, and 49% said they were too long. Slender women were the second-most dissatisfied group overall, with the waist (80%) and the shoulders (40%) being the areas that bothered them most.
As someone who deals with this issue daily, Brittany Trinh, a Ph.D. student in Chemistry and STEM website designer commented: "I currently use a Fisher Brand small, and it does have a little belt but even with it I still feel that it's too boxy. In addition the sleeves are slightly too short on me and wide, so a stretchy cuff would make it easier for me to work.”
With limited extra-small options from contracted institutional suppliers, many petite and slender women are left searching the internet for their best option. Without a size chart and no returns/refunds, it’s easy to see how these groups are often left wearing poorly-fitting lab coats. Here’s one powerful summary from a slender woman:
"Being swallowed by a giant lab coat makes you feel like you are dressing up in a costume. It creates a strange imposter syndrome that whispers in your ear "you're not a real scientist".
Many lab coats have belts but curiously few of those are functional at tightening the waist. A working belt with “petite” and “slim” sizing would go a long way toward empowering these women to feel great while they work and get out of their way so they can do amazing research.
A man’s greatest fear in choosing a shirt or suit jacket is it being too tight in the shoulders and armpits. The same goes for lab coats. Reaching into the back of a fume hood and feeling the lab coat tighten around your shoulders makes you feel as if you’re in a straight jacket.
So, how often does this happen? 65% of men over 250 lbs said their lab coats were too tight and restrictive at the shoulders, while still 35% of men from 210-250 lbs reported the same problem.
Restricted movement can have real impacts on your lab work. Maybe you keep that chemical closer to the front of the bench where it’s easier to spill and the fumes or nanoparticles are more likely to be inhaled. Or you have to stand up and push your torso into the working area to reach that waste bin, exposing yourself and potentially contaminating your experiment.
These men often can’t find larger lab coat sizes. Adding a flexible pleat between the shoulder blades and using a more “V”-shaped profile would let these men do their work safely and comfortably.
Much of the dissatisfaction with lab coats is from researchers who either use a hand-me-down coat already available in their lab or had one ordered for them after quickly being asked “S/M/L/XL?”. Outsiders might assume an unhappy scientist would just hop online and order a great lab coat by matching up a size chart with basic safety rules for their lab.
So, how often do scientists do this? Only 9% researched and ordered the best possible lab coat for them. A full 50% of scientists use the closest-fitting lab coat already available in their lab.
Remember that our data is skewed toward younger scientists at universities. This group won’t have the money to go spend $100+ on a high-end lab coat, and many don’t even consider asking their PI to purchase something better and PIs often have not offered.
Emilia Angelillo, a scientist who has a popular Instagram channel @emilia.science showing STEM demonstrations, also has a hard time finding lab coats that fit: "I don't like the large male fit because it's not comfortable and I don't feel in control of my body movement. It's a bit like working with gloves that are too large!" She went on to say that she even special-ordered a lab coat from Italy with a women's cut because of limited options available to her locally.
“Go pick a lab coat out of that box” tends to be a common phrase on the first day in the lab. It leads to all kinds of problems and frustrations in fit and function. Creating an amazing lab coat won’t go far unless the researchers most in need have access to them. Word-of-mouth from a community-driven effort is essential to raise awareness in these groups that better, affordable options exist.
Many institutions have policies that forbid researchers from wearing lab coats not provided by their existing supplier contracts. In some cases, these agreements are necessary due to regular industrial laundering requirements and to set some basic safety standards for liability reasons.
How often does this happen? 43% were forced to use a contracted institutional supplier and 31% had to use personal money to buy a new lab coat if they didn’t like the options available in their lab.
Who decides these contracts? Normally it’s a Purchasing department looking for great pricing with no experience wearing lab coats. They may consult lab safety officers to make sure the basic safety requirements are met, but safety issues caused by fit and comfort are invisible in this analysis.
It’s important that great lab coats are easy to find and purchase online with a few clicks and a credit card. That’s not the case in the traditional distributor model. Ideally, both systems should exist in parallel so that both individuals and institutions can find great lab coats.
Dr. Daisy Shu also pointed out an issue with the existing institutional laundering process: “I would also like to highlight the need for a good lab coat cleaning process where you can still track your lab coat and have spares while your current lab coat is being cleaned.” The lack of a spare creates a situation where a scientist has to plan their research around their laundering schedule, or even worse, cleaning is so cumbersome that it just doesn’t happen as often as it should.
The cuffs of a lab coat are often an afterthought but can cause real problems. We compared four types of cuffs. Two types - adjustable velcro/snap cuffs and short elastic cuffs - received <10% of the votes so we’ll focus on long knit cuffs and straight open cuffs.
Long knit cuffs fit like a turtleneck for your wrist: They hug it snugly for protection and don’t easily slide up and down. Straight open cuffs are what you would find on a suit jacket. These usually hang 1-2 inches down from your wrist and retract when you reach forward.
The results? Wet Biology/Life Science researchers were 4 times as likely to prefer knit cuffs over straight open cuffs. Those working in chemistry labs had a 60% higher preference for knit cuffs.
Straight cuffs tend to look neater and are normally preferred for physicians because they value presentation more than protection. In a research setting with chemicals, knit cuffs provide the best protection. They keep your wrist covered when you reach (if the sleeves are the proper length) and are less likely to knock over expensive glassware like straight cuffs that can hang down from your wrist. Knit cuffs also give more room for error in sleeve length and wrist size for researchers who have more varied body sizes.
Typical lab coats have 3 pockets - two big ones in front of the thighs and one upper left breast pocket. This is fewer than your average pair of jeans! For many scientists constantly moving around and working with many small tools and samples, it’s just not enough.
A majority (52%) of scientists said they wanted more pockets for items ranging from cell phones to utensils to safety glasses and lab markers/pens.
These pockets also need to be functional. We heard all sorts of complaints about pocket placement, design, and durability. The breast pocket often dumps its contents all over the floor when the researcher bends over to pick something up. Keeping a heavy or sharp item in the thigh pockets turns dangerous when the wearer starts walking, kicking the pockets around with every step. Our current prototype has 7 pockets, shaped for specific items and with placement that makes ergonomic sense.
Let’s not forget the primary function of a lab coat - to protect the researchers from hazards. Assuming the material is safe for that specific lab work, it just needs to cover the skin. Curiously, many common lab coat designs leave exposed skin in the most vulnerable areas.
This is why 42% of researchers felt that their current lab coats did not adequately shield their skin from chemicals.
In the USA, the research culture has a strong preference to what’s viewed as more traditional and professional - the open collar with a lapel. It’s viewed this way because the men in science of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s wore dress shirts and ties underneath as they worked. These shirts and ties would not fit under a Howie-style collar, and protected their skin where the lab coat did not.
But fast forward to 2022, and this same lab coat is often being worn by scientists working with hazardous materials with only a t-shirt or low-cut shirt underneath, exposing a lot of skin to permanent damage.
The other area that’s severely lacking is the wrist. With straight cuffs, reaching forward into the work area will usually pull back the cuffs and expose an inch or two of your wrist, directly underneath the chemicals being transferred. Long knit cuffs typically solve this problem if the sleeve length is correct.
White is the most common lab coat color for good reason. It shows contamination easily, looks professional, and there’s no dye to fade under high-temperature laundering conditions. White coats are really a hold-over from the medical field, but some doctors are even turning away from them because they can be intimidating to the patients. Nurses, on the other hand, enjoy a huge variety of fun color options for scrubs. Should we go the same direction for scientists’ lab coats?
Our data show that 35% of scientists were dissatisfied that their lab coats were only available in white. At least 20% of women said they would wear colors like black, grey, light purple, navy blue, medium blue and light blue. We even had write-in requests for tie-dye and checkered prints. Among the LGBTQ+ respondents, there was a much stronger preference toward new colors with only 36% preferring to wear white.
It’s clear that most scientists accept white lab coats by habit, but they can limit self-expression and individuality in the work environment for others. There are real constraints where some flame retardant or chemical-resistant textiles can only be made in a few colors, but for the typical 100% cotton or cotton/polyester blend, we’d love to open up more options for a more vibrant and colorful work environment.
These findings are more representative of early-career researchers because the survey was promoted in places favored by young people. Most of our respondents come from academia: 33% graduate students, 22% undergraduates, and 8% post-docs. This group often has the hardest time with lab coats because funding is tight and safety is not well-regulated. This is the segment most likely to be impacted by an affordable, direct-sale lab coat.
We also had a sizable response from industry professionals and lab technicians. They had a lot of great feedback since they are often forced to wear incredibly standardized lab coats purchased with supply/laundering contracts by people who don’t actually wear the coats. Their needs are highly specialized and hard to serve because of those existing wholesale contracts. We hope the initial success will help us get into the wholesale business to serve these industry professionals in the future.
Females make up 56% of participants, and males 40%. We were also happy to have representation from non-binary researchers. The fit data we show is grouped into two “body types”, representing traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine builds. We plan for our “men’s” cut to have more room in the shoulders, while our “women’s” cut will flare more at the hips.
So, what needs to happen to fix these problems? Not only do we need well-designed lab coats available in sizes to fit different body types, but they need to be affordable for early-career researchers to purchase with personal money. The researchers also need to know that better options are available.
For that, we need YOU! Here's how you can help:
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