What's Up Your Sleeve? A Scoping Review of White Coat Contamination and Horizontal Microbial Transmission

South Med J. 2022 Jun;115(6):360-365. doi: 10.14423/SMJ.0000000000001405.


Objectives: White coats have been suggested to serve as fomites carrying and transmitting pathogenic organisms and potentially increasing the risk of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). We aimed to examine the current evidence regarding white coat contamination and its role in horizontal transmission and HAIs risk. We also examined handling practices and policies associated with white coat contamination in the reviewed literature.

Methods: We conducted a literature search through PubMed and Web of Science Core Collection/Cited Reference Search, and manually searched the bibliographies of the articles identified in electronic searches. Studies published up to March 3, 2021 that were accessible in English-language full-text format were included.

Results: Among 18 included studies, 15 (83%) had ≥100 participants, 16 (89%) were cross-sectional studies, and 13 (72%) originated outside of the United States. All of the studies showed evidence of microbial colonization. Colonization with Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli was reported in 100% and 44% of the studies, respectively. Antibacterial-resistant strains, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and multidrug-resistant organisms were reported in 8 (44%) studies. There was a lack of studies assessing the link between white coat contamination and HAIs. The data regarding white coat handling and laundering practices showed inconsistencies between healthcare facilities and a lack of clear policies.

Conclusions: There is robust evidence that white coats serve as fomites, carrying dangerous pathogens, including multidrug-resistant organisms. A knowledge gap exists, however, regarding the role of contaminated white coats in HAI risk that warrants further research to generate the evidence necessary to guide the current attire policies for healthcare workers.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cross Infection* / prevention & control
  • Health Personnel
  • Humans
  • Laundering*
  • Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus*
  • Staphylococcus aureus