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7 keys to proper care and cleaning of your ballistic vest

Follow these do’s and don’ts to prolong the life of this lifesaving investment

Sponsored by Propper

By Rachel Zoch, EMS1 BrandFocus Staff

We know that ballistic vests save lives and that wearing body armor is becoming more common with EMS. But what do you need to know to prolong the life of this lifesaving garment?

Taking care of your ballistic vest isn’t complicated, but it is important to do it right. Start by reading the manufacturer’s care instructions that come with your vest, which should explain how to clean and store your armor.
Taking care of your ballistic vest isn’t complicated, but it is important to do it right. Start by reading the manufacturer’s care instructions that come with your vest, which should explain how to clean and store your armor. (image/Propper)

Taking care of your body armor isn’t complicated, but it is important to do it right. It’s also important to make sure your armor fits properly – check out this video for armor fitting tips.

Here are seven do’s and don’ts for proper cleaning and care of body armor to keep your ballistic vest in good shape as long as possible.

1. DO Read the Care Instructions 

Let’s be honest – most of us don’t bother reading the instructions that come with a new purchase. Whether you receive instructions with your vest or have to go download them, it’s important to read and follow them to avoid accidentally damaging your vest and voiding the warranty. The manufacturer’s instructions should explain how to clean and store your armor.

Handling your vest improperly could ruin the ballistic fibers, warns Ace Laserna, national armor sales manager for Propper, which offers several ballistic vest options. Be sure to read the instructions carefully and follow them to the letter to get the maximum protective benefit from the vest – and so you don’t accidentally void the manufacturer’s warranty.

“It’s very important to read the instructions carefully and follow them to the letter if you really want to get the maximum benefit and maximum protection from your vest for years to come,” he said, “because if you don't follow the instructions, there’s no guarantee that that the vests are going to work properly.”

2. DON’T Get Your Armor Soaking Wet 

Soft ballistic armor can stop a bullet, but it is not machine washable. Generally, Kevlar/aramid panels are housed inside a watertight sleeve, which is then inserted into an internal or external carrier. Assuming the watertight seal has not been broken, it’s OK to get the ballistic insert wet without damaging the fibers.

But Laserna warns that it’s best to avoid submerging the insert just in case the seal has been broken. Submerging tightly woven fabric like Kevlar in water can loosen the material, causing it to degrade and break down.

“We recommend keeping the whole insert dry to prevent possible water intrusion if the seal is broken,” he said. “When the fibers loosen up and separate, you’ll lose the protection. The weave begins to relax, and that's when bullets get through. That material can't do its job if those fibers have loosened too much.”

In short, washing your soft armor will turn it into heavy cloth with no ballistic benefit, so don’t put it in the washing machine. (Don’t dry clean it, either, adds Laserna.)

You can wash the carrier vest by itself on the gentle/delicate setting – and you should, especially after any particularly messy calls – but hang it to dry and don’t use fabric softener. Be sure to first remove any ballistic panels, trauma plates and straps before laundering and clean them separately, and reassemble your armor only after the carrier is completely dry.

3. DO Spot-clean Your Armor 

“Don’t wash your armor” doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) clean it. Just like anything else you wear, that ballistic vest naturally gets sweaty and dirty and needs to be freshened up. It’s important that you clean your carrier regularly, as you’re likely to come in contact with any number of bodily fluids from patients – not to mention your own sweat – during a shift.

To thoroughly spot-clean your ballistic vest, sponge it off with a little soap and water and a clean cloth, then wipe away any excess moisture and hang it to dry. Be sure to use a mild soap detergent like Dawn or baby wipes. Avoid alcohol or bleach wipes, as those chemicals can break down the ballistic material.

Inspect your armor closely for any holes or tear as you wipe it down. If the outer waterproof membrane is compromised, the inner core of the vest can get wet and break down, losing its ballistic protection properties.

It might be tempting to spray a vest that’s gotten particularly funky with Febreze or Lysol, but don’t – the moisture can damage the ballistic material.

4. DO Hang Your Armor to Dry 

Do not put it in the washing machine, do not dry clean it, and do not use an electric dryer, says Laserna. Let your vest air dry.

Although armor certification tests include temperature extremes, it’s best to store your armor vest flat, and in a cool, dry place to prolong its useful life.

5. DO Roll Your New Armor to Increase Comfort 

Although it seems contradictory to the advice to store your vest flat, Dianne Zanzottera, a former police officer and Propper’s armor customer service specialist, advises customers to roll up a new soft armor vest to make it more comfortable more quickly.

“Sometimes I'll get a vest here and start trying to work it in for them,” she said, “because otherwise, the only way they’re going to work it in and make it feel comfortable is by wearing it.”

Propper recommends that when you receive your new vest, you remove the ballistic panels from the carrier when not in use, roll them and secure them with a rubber band. Repeat the process between uses two or three times in each direction, alternating between rolling horizontally and vertically, for a more comfortable vest.

Be careful to avoid creasing the vest when rolling and unrolling it, adds Laserna.

6. DO Wear a Shirt Under Your Vest 

Ballistic vests are made to protect you from bullets, but they aren’t necessarily comfortable. A vest meant to go over your uniform keeps the ballistic material off your skin, but a concealed vest requires an undergarment, such as a moisture-wicking T-shirt, to prevent chafing and minimize odors from sweat.

7. DO Keep Your Warranty on File 

In the unfortunate event that you need your vest serviced, keep the paperwork for reference, including the serial number, proof of purchase and purchase date. These documents will also contain important information like the certified service life so you’ll know when it’s time to replace your armor. In general, it should be five years for soft armor and up to 10 for hard plates. Check your paperwork to be sure, as different manufacturers may offer different warranties.

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