Many boaters are hesitant to do anything more to a life jacket or PFD than spray it down with clean water. This is largely due to a well-intentioned fear of compromising its integrity, but proper cleaning is good for your flotation device and will help extend its life.
Cleaning and sanitizing life jackets serve several purposes. First, it gets rid of mold, mildew, sunscreen, and other contaminants that may break down the PFD’s materials over time. Second, it forces you to inspect each life jacket for rips, tears, and other signs of wear that would indicate it needs replacement. Finally, a clean, attractive, odor-free life jacket is simply more likely to be worn.
However, there are many wrong ways to clean a life jacket, and some of them can render it useless. Here are some simple rules and tips that will help you keep your life jackets looking and smelling great, without diminishing their efficacy or lifespan:
Always air-dry your PFD after use by leaving it in a well-ventilated space, out of direct sunlight.
If you must hang it inside to dry, use a rotating fan to speed the process and avoid mildew.
If used in saltwater, rinse the jackets with clean fresh water after each use.
Rinse off any mud, sand, or visible stains as soon as possible.
Life jackets should be cleaned right away if stains like mud, food, or sunscreen are visible and do not wash off with water alone.
All life jackets should be cleaned monthly or at the end of the season as every wearing leaves oils from skin and sun care products on the fabric.
Lay a tarp on the ground, then fill a bucket with cool water and about two tablespoons of liquid laundry detergent.
Place the life jackets, with all straps and hardware, unfastened, on the tarp, and scrub all surfaces of the jacket using the detergent solution and a soft brush. For tough stains like red mud or food, apply a dab of the detergent (not bleach) directly onto the stain. Work it in with the brush and allow the jacket to sit for at least 15 minutes before rinsing.
If the jacket has mold or mildew, move to an outside area and brush away any visible spores before wetting the fabric. Scrub as suggested but add 1/4 cup of oxygen-based bleach to the cleaning solution. This will help remove dark stains.
Rinse well using a hose or plenty of clean water, smoothing the fabric to ensure you rinse all the crevices.
Hang the jacket to drip dry, preferably out of direct sunlight.
After the life jackets are dry to the touch, check for any puckering or shrinkage. Be sure no water is caught in the interior foam and that there is no mildew odor.
Store life jackets in a dry, cool, dark place.
Make sure PFDs are completely dry before storing them in a small space on a boat or in a plastic bin.
When in doubt, consult the life jacket’s owner’s manual or manufacturer’s website.
Don’t Do This:
Never machine wash, dry clean or use strong detergents.
Never dry your PFD by putting it close to a direct heat source or putting it in a clothes dryer.
Never place a life jacket in a standard clothes washer. The agitation and heat will break down the foam and render the jacket useless.
Do not use chlorine bleach directly on a jacket as it can break down fabrics and interior foam.
Do not attempt to clean a life jacket with industrial cleaning agents or something like gasoline, paint thinner, or acetone. They can dissolve the foam that makes the device functional and weaken the exterior fabric.
Do not bend life jackets or place heavy objects on top of them as this can cause crushing and damage performance.