Buying a Lab Coat

September 21st, 2010

Blue Nomex LabcoatJust before I started here—and perhaps as a consequence of the Sheri Sangji tragedy—the chemistry division at Caltech instituted a policy that lab coats must be worn in lab.  As far as  personal protective equipment goes, a good lab coat comes third on my list after eye protection and gloves.  (Eye protection is an absolute must, 100% of the time; if you lose your sight, your career in chemistry is done.   Gloves come next, because it’s impossible to avoid your hands’ coming into contact with hazardous materials without them.)

Everyone here was told to get two coats, such that a backup would be available when your primary one is getting laundered.  As you can imagine, the new lab-coat policy initiated a buying spree.  When it came down to ordering the coats, I was a bit surprised by the choices some people were making.  In my mind, there are two essential elements of a lab coat that are non-negotiable: (i) flame resistant material and (ii) fasteners that are easy to open.

First, a lab coat must be made of a flame resistant material.  Polyester lab coats are light and look nice, but in a chem lab, you’re better off wearing nothing than a polyester coat.  They protect against spills, and that’s it.  If you’re ever in a fire with a polyester coat, you’ve got big problems.  The fabric both melts and burns, such that your body will quickly become laminated in a burning piece of plastic.  Polyester is just a really dumb idea.

And while they’re much better than polyester coats, I think cotton coats are also not a good idea.  They won’t melt like polyester ones, but cotton coats are still flammable.  Yes, the coat gives you an added layer of protection to peel off from your cotton clothes underneath, but wouldn’t it be better if your lab coat were made of a fabric that doesn’t burn?  (Going back to the story about Sheri Sangji, recall that a postdoc in her lab tried to smother the flames by wrapping her in a lab coat, only to have the lab coat also ignite.  Flame resistance might have been the difference between life and death.)

My fabric of choice for lab coats is Nomex.  Nomex is a polymer manufactured by DuPont, and it’s a cousin of Kevlar.  (Both are aramids made of diaminobenzene and benzene-dicarboxylic acid derivatives, where Kevlar is 1,4-substituted and Nomex is 1,3-substituted.)  Nomex is both flame-resistant (it doesn’t burn easily) and heat-resistant (it’s a good insulator).  It is the fabric of choice for firefighters’ clothing as well as the fire suits worn by race car drivers.

Along with flame-resistant fabric, the type of fastener on your coat is also important.  While the choice of fastener might seem like a trifling point (who cares?), you’re buying your lab coat for the one-in-a-million event where the crap hits the fan.  If you’re on fire, you want to be able to get that coat off as quickly as possible.  As someone who’s been the victim of a major lab explosion, I can assure you the event can be disorienting if nothing else.  The noise of the detonation puts you in a bit of a daze, and when you feel the warm sensation of your own blood trickling down the front of your chest, you have an even harder time thinking clearly.  While I’ve never been engulfed in flames, I’d want an outer layer that I’d be able to strip off without a second thought.

Accordingly, standard buttons are a bad idea.   Un-doing buttons generally requires two hands and each button must be removed one-by-one.  The process is time consuming when every second counts, and if you’ve just been in an explosion where you’ve blown off three of your fingers, you’d don’t want to have to mess around with buttons.  What you want is a coat that you can rip off in one motion.  I like snaps, but I’ve also seen knotted cords that get fed through buttonholes.  Velcro should work (although, remember that Velcro is flammable).

After these two things, the other features of lab coats are less important.  I like coats that have good pockets and a slit for a pen or marker.  I also prefer white coats, because it is easier to see when your clothing has become soiled or contaminated.  Special safety things, like a collar that will fold up to cover the front of your neck, are cool but hard to find.

I suppose there are some negative aspects of Nomex coats.  First, Nomex coats are more expensive than their cotton counterparts ($80 vs. $35, or so).  But, if you’re going to pay for the serial cost of a laundering service, why not absorb the one-time cost of buying Nomex?  Second, the fabric seems coarser, but since you’re wearing it on top of your other clothes anyway, I don’t think this makes much of a difference.  Finally, Nomex coats only seem available in odd colors, like royal blue, navy, and pine green.  You can’t get white, but there’s an ugly cream color available.

If money is a big issue, keep your eyes open for deals online.  I ended up getting a pair of royal blue Nomex coats off of eBay for $40 each, and I consider it money well spent.


35 Responses to “Buying a Lab Coat”

  1. Chemjobber Says:

    Wow — I didn’t know that Nomex was relatively inexpensive. I was under the impression that they’d be hundreds or thousands of dollars.

  2. European Chemist Says:

    Very good post, Paul. Safety is always underrated among Organic chemists – and though it sounds familiar, we do like to think that accidents always happen somewhere else.
    Good lead on the Nomex lab coats, but honestly – wouldn’t you fancy making your own lab coats and starting a small business on that? Sounds like an easy deal, no fancy designing involved and being a chemist with a brain you have already suggested on this post what would be the ideal features to include. After that, the market is huge; just count the number of labs doing research in Orgo, multiply per an average 5-7 students per lab buying your stuff and voilà.
    The advertising part only requires a few members of academia being convinced by a skillful demonstration and good networking (do you need help on that? ;))

  3. David P Says:

    I disagree that safety is under-rated in organic labs by the way. Maybe academic labs, but industry labs take it very seriously.

    Surprised you didn’t mention sleeves/cuffs: open sleeves are excellent for spilling things on your wrist and knocking things over with. Closed cuffs are much safer.

  4. John Spevacek Says:

    “if you lose your sight, your career in chemistry is done”

    Not necessarily. 3M had a blind chemist that I met a number of years ago, call it 15 or so. I can’t remember his name, but the ACS had an article about him in a fluff magazine that they no longer publish. He had lost his sight overtime to a disease. Even 15 years ago, technology existed to assist him in reading articles, so I can imagine that it is even better today.

    Obviously I’m not suggesting you ignore eyewear or any of your other suggestions which are all spot-on. I’m just stating that losing your sight may not necessarily end your career. Good to know, eh?

  5. European Chemist Says:

    David P,

    Indeed I was refering to Academia. Industrial environments are ever more serious in the way safety is enforced. Conversely, in the 21st century you still get students at top Academic institutions trying to add 150 ml of something as dangerous as tBuLi by syringing 3 times 50 ml (!) with a 50 ml (!!) plastic (!!!) syringe, and performing such reactions when no more than a random Post-Doc is present, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve (!). Sounds unbelievable each time I read it. Peace be with her soul :-(

  6. organic grad student Says:

    It seems to me that there are a few key differences between academia and industry when it comes to wearing lab coats:

    First of all, in an industrial setting, people are often working reasonable hours and only wear the lab coat for up to 8 hours a day (40 hrs/wk). When you are in grad school, you are often putting in 10 or more hours a day + weekends (60+ hours a week). If I can compare this to running — the casual runner does not have to think very deeply about what they wear because it won’t have a significant impact on comfort. The marathon runner has to be very careful about what they wear because if there is discomfort it will be amplified over time causing chafing, blisters, etc. My point is merely that comfort really does matter if you are wearing the coat all the time. (I might also note that the typical brand x lab coat does not fit comfortably for most women. This adds an extra level of complexity.)

    Second of all, when I worked in industry lab coat dry cleaning was provided. That has not been the case since I came to graduate school. (And if you are really wearing the lab coat all the time…. that’s a lot of hours worth of stink).

    Finally, the last thing that I have found is that there is a stigma against wearing lab coats in academia when no one else is doing it. Furthermore, when you can’t afford any nice clothing, there isn’t an incentive to keep it looking nice. It seems like correcting some of the problems mentioned above and requiring that everyone wear a lab coat would go a long way toward changing the academic culture.

  7. Jyllian Kemsley Says:

    Is Caltech laundering the coats or are people taking them home and washing them with the rest of their clothing?

  8. Paul Says:

    @ Jyllian: Here, they have a laundry program. At Harvard, you had to do it yourself.

    When I’ve washed lab coats in the past, I did so knowing that there was nothing particularly nasty on them, and I never washed them in the same load as clothing. The subject of laundry is particularly important with regard to Nomex coats, which should only be washed with other Nomex materials. Putting Nomex and cotton in the same load can cause the Nomex to pick up flammable lint, thereby eliminating the point of having Nomex in the first place. I’m not sure if the laundry people here will segregate fabrics; my guess is no.

  9. z Says:

    You mentioned that Nomex fabric feels coarser than cotton. I am curious about which fabric is heavier? The air conditioning in my lab never gets cool enough (to enforce cost savings probably), and I tend to sweat a lot in my cotton lab coat. I wear it anyway, for the reasons you mentioned, but I’d be interested in a lighter alternative that is not polyester. Of course, there may be thinner cotton lab coats–I just accepted the standard-issue model they gave me and never looked into potential alternatives.

  10. Paul Says:

    @z: The Nomex coat I have seems lighter than the cotton coats I’ve had in the past, but I’m not sure if there’s a huge difference.

  11. Tom S Says:

    I cannot believe that in the US you are allowed in a lab without lab coat and eye protection, without those you would get thrown out of any lab (academic or otherwise) in an instant and the lab fined if they get caught for poor H&S here in the UK

  12. eugene Says:

    labcoat is not as important as eye protection or gloves, that’s true. I hate wearing mine lately. I still do it for dangerous reactions or materials, but I take it off any moment I can. Why? Because I’m a rebel and I hate safety.

    Or maybe it’s because I work in a seventy year old building that even with two air condioners blasting at all time, still manages to come close to the boiling point of ether on good days in the summer. An extra layer of clothes makes me want to pass out after a while as the fumes of a combination of my own sweat and organic solvents start displacing the oxygen at a rapid rate. And no, I don’t feel pressured by the Indian postdocs being good and safe lab coat citizens (and no goggles because the lobotomized chemistry rejects in safety decided that lab coats are waaaay more vital than safety glasses and that’s the only thing they check for) in the same lab as me as they are playing games on the computer while wearing a lab coat. They are used to living in labs the temperature of the boiling point of ether. I’m still not.

  13. Friday round-up | The Safety Zone Says:

    [...] From the blogosphere: ChemBark on Buying a lab coat. [...]

  14. Safe science garb: Lab coats | The Safety Zone Says:

    [...] 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, [...]

  15. François Says:

    I work at Laval University, Québec City, Canada, and here, at the Faculty of medecine and at the Faculty of science and engineering, there is a very clear rule: you must have a labcoat on, when entering a laboratory. It is mandatory.

    Judgeing from photos and videos I have seen, there seems to exist a bit of a careless attitude, in American labs, with many people not wearing any kind of protection.

    Do American scientists and engineers, have something against labcoats? I think they look professional, and hell, in some circumstances, they can save your life! So what’s with the no-labcoat thing?

  16. yonemoto Says:

  17. excimer Says:

    Edna Mode: Ayn Rand meets Anna Wintour

  18. yonemoto Says:

    OMG, My boss at my last postdoc looked exactly like edna mode, except younger, cuter, and a bit less cartoonish =). Same glasses, same height, same super-energetic attitude, same awesome ideas… And then there was that one time she threatened to kill any enzymologist in the group that used a P2 for enzyme assays*! I almost fell out of my seat recalling Edna Mode.

    *awesome. Just awesome! It’s too bad she quit academia.

  19. yonemoto Says:

    (it’s because of that speech that I wound up with the coveted P2 because I was the only non-enzymologist, so I might be biased =)

  20. Jon Says:

    Great discussion.
    Can anyone in the USA recommend where to purchase a labcoat?
    Thanks
    Jon

  21. Happy Lab PPE Day | ChemBark Says:

    [...] is the Nomex lab coat I wrote about here and my favorite model of safety glasses, N-Specs (Northern Safety, Frankfort, NY). I am also [...]

  22. psl Says:

    Paul, what’s your take on 65/35 polycotton, like these?

    http://www.alexandra.co.uk/WL009/

    I’ve used them for years, and a cursory google search suggests they burn….yikes

  23. Paul Says:

    They definitely burn, but they might also melt. I’d stay away and go with Nomex (preferred) or 100% cotton.

    One thing that bugs me about the lab coat you linked to is that it is the royal blue color that is typical of Nomex lab coats. I think someone new to a lab could easily make a wrong assumption about the material of the available lab coats on the rack.

  24. wolfie Says:

    The reason that these lab coats cannot be white is probably some minor, but strikingly yellow by-product of the Nomex synthesis, don’t you think so ?

  25. Chemistry Weddings (and Funerals?) | ChemBark Says:

    [...] stick with with the traditional dress pants, shirt, and tie (yellow, please), but I’d like a Nomex lab coat in lieu of a sports jacket. Next, I want a pristine 7″ NMR tube with a purple cap placed in [...]

  26. Biochemistry Student Says:

    Thank you for the informative post. I got a Gabardine 100% cotton cloth the other day and planning to sew it at a sewing shop to attain my idea of an ideal lab coat since I have to wear it for long hours.

    Something interesting tho is reading that gloves are of such a big importance. Since at lab we deal wit organic compounds and with conc acids we are advised not to wear gloves otherwise they would adhere to our skin if conc acid was spilled on our hands. I found it stupid, but I am just a student! Is it true?

  27. Paul Says:

    No…regardless of what you’re working with, you should wear gloves. If concentrated acid eats away at the gloves, what do you think it will do to your fingers? If you find that something degrades your gloves, try switching to a more resistant material, using thicker gloves, or (at the very least) changing your gloves when they become contaminated. Gloves are cheap; skin graft surgery is not.

  28. Oliver Says:

    What about liquid repellent finishes on lab-coats like Teflon, chemical splashes will bead-up and roll down the garment to the feet. Should lab-coats have some absorbent capacity and is removed immediately and discarded after significant exposure?

  29. Paul Says:

    Lab coats should always be removed and laundered when they’ve become significantly contaminated.

    I don’t have a problem with liquid repellant lab coats. I’d rather have a large volume of liquid roll down to my shoes than get soaked up by the clothing around my torso. Also, chemical-resistant aprons (which would do something similar) are an excellent form of PPE in many circumstances.

  30. Chem Student Says:

    This was an enlightening article I came across while googling what to look out for when shopping for a lab coat. Flame retardance sounds like a good idea in general, but how does nomex hold up with chemical spills?

    From Dupont’s FAQ on nomex: “Aramid fibers have very good resistance to many chemicals, such as organics, acids, and bases. Although protective apparel made with Nomex® fiber helps exhibit them with good chemical stability, most aramid garments are made of fabrics that are not designed to protect the wearer against chemical penetration.”

    In your experience, do these fibers protect the skin or clothes underneath sufficiently well in the case of spills?

  31. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Chem Student: The Nomex coats I’ve had will not protect you from a big spill. The fabric seems more coarse and porous than some other coats I’ve seen. That said, I don’t think most lab coats are designed to protect against massive spills. If that’s a major concern for you, I’d suggest having a spill-resistant chemical apron handy to put over your lab coat.

  32. Sud Says:

    This is a very enlightening article. Our labs recently purchased flame resistant lab coats from FlameResistantuniforms.com. I am not entirely sure if this is made of the same material described but the website and a tag on the coat says it meets NFPA and OSHA standards.
    The website to the same is here for the benefit of fellow bloggers:
    http://www.flameresistantuniforms.com/KEL2LB/bulwark-flame-resistant-lab-coats.html?gclid=CJy4-5bH0boCFejm7Aod5W0AJQ

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  34. Miranda Says:

    You can find Indura, Nomex, or Kevlar wherever they sell welding gear. Some brands are John Tillman Co., Lincoln Electric, Revco, etc. You will probably have to special order coats in these types of materials.

  35. Student T Says:

    I am looking at this and getting concerned about my chemistry lab that I will be doing. I can’t really afford a Nomex lab coat for just a few labs, but a cotton coat does not sound any better. I was wondering if wool would be a cheeper, not quite as safe as nomex but still better than cotton. Wool has a higher ignition temperature, a slower flame spread rate than cotton, as well as being less absorbent, it does not melt and drip, and forms a char which is extinguishes it self. While it ay not be the best material in the world I thought that I would be a better safety material that cotton and cheeper too, for the college student that I am, who is not too serious about chemistry, but is more serious about safety.

    What do you think?


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