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Before the blue scrubs and caps, surgeons would wear white

Few work uniforms are as easily identifiable as the all-blue scrubs, gloves, cap and mask of a surgeon. But why do surgeons across the globe sport this particular color? Turns out this is more than a fashion choice. It actually helps ensure a safe and successful operation.


As NHS surgeon Doctor Karan explains in a short video, surgeons spend a lot of time looking at the various shades of reds and pinks going on in the human body. After a while, all those hues start blending together, making it more difficult to see subtle distinctions. You can see how that might be an issue during an operation.

“Because the colors blue and green are opposite to red on the light spectrum they can actually improve a doctor’s eyesight in the operating room and help them pick out different shades of red and reduce the chances of error,” he says.

Another reason is the distracting “optical illusion” created after focusing on red for an extended period of time, where the color transfers over to white surfaces, similar to the way you’d see floating spots after a camera flash.

Psychology has a term behind this phenomenon named the Opponent Process Theory, which suggests that when the cones assigned to perceiving certain colors in our eyes get fatigued, they start firing opposing receptor cells to conserve energy.

“As someone who works in a paint department this actually makes sense. I do find myself going what I call ‘color blind’ sometimes when I'm doing a lot of color matches for an extended period of time. It makes my job more difficult,” one person wrote. Another person added that since organic matter tends to not be blue, it makes it easier to see if something has accidentally fallen where it shouldn’t during surgery.

Surgeons only began donning the color blue in the early 20th century. Before that, during medicine’s germ-theory era, they wore white to associate themselves with purity and cleanliness. However, physicians noticed that this color caused vision issues and headaches. Eventually one influential doctor would swap out the white for the blues and greens we see today.

Just a cool bit of science, history and example of the effort doctors put into helping others, all rolled into one story.


This article originally appeared on 5.19.23