How to Wash Military Combat Uniforms

How to wash military uniforms
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The uniforms our military men and women wear are a symbol of their hard work and dedication to protecting our country. Unlike dress uniforms, many daily service uniforms or cammies are subjected to oil, grease, dirt, along with normal wear and tear. If you are in charge of military laundry duty at your house, it is critical to handle these garments properly.

How to Wash Working or Combat Uniforms

Caring for military gear follows much of the same basic advice for doing any type of laundry. However, there are some very important considerations for the detergents you choose. Detergent choice is important in protecting the finishes added to the uniform fabrics like insect repellent and fire resistance that protect service members.

Use the Right Type of Detergent

Even if the service member is not deployed and is serving on a base on American soil, his or her uniform is designed to provide comfort, durability, and protection by reducing visibility in the ultraviolet and infrared spectrum. All of these components are taken into consideration during the manufacturing of the fabric used for the uniforms. The United States Armed Forces currently restricts the use of chemicals like optical brighteners in the manufacturing of uniforms.

Maintaining the important qualities of the fabric must be done during cleaning. Using the wrong detergent can put service members in danger. Many detergents contain optical brighteners that can cause working or combat uniforms to be more visible at night. That's the last thing you want in a battle zone, in simulations or war games training. Night vision gear can pick up the optical brighteners very easily. While most civilians want their colored clothes to look bright and their white clothes dazzlingly white, service members should never stand out to the enemy. 

Hunters have long known to avoid detergents that contain optical brighteners that allow fabrics to gather ultraviolet energy. The UV light is released from the fabric in a bright band of blue that game animals can see. The same principle applies to military uniforms and night vision gear. It's also a good idea to avoid highly-perfumed detergents that can be easily detected.

Select a laundry detergent that contains no brighteners/whiteners. (Bio-O-Kleen, Cheer Free, Charlie's Soap, Sun and Earth, and Seventh Generation Free & Clear are brand names free of brighteners.) Don't choose the products that advertise a bleach alternative or color-safe bleach in the formula because these ingredients whiten and brighten.

Avoid Fabric Softeners and Dryer Sheets

Fabric softeners coat fabric fibers with chemicals to make the fabric feel softer to the touch. But those chemicals can interfere with some of the properties that make combat uniforms unique. These garments are treated with permethrin, an insect repellent. Coating the fabric fibers with fabric softener makes the permethrin useless leaving the wearer more vulnerable to bites from insects. 

Fabric softeners and dryer sheets also reduce the flame retardant qualities of the uniform fabric. 

An alternative to help remove detergent residue that leaves fabrics feeling scratchy is to add one cup of distilled white vinegar to the rinse water. There will be no residual odor.

Wash Settings and Techniques

High temperatures can be harsh on fabrics. Wash uniforms in cool or cold water and tumble dry on warm. If you choose to hang uniforms on a clothesline to dry, do not hang them in direct sun which can fade the camouflage pattern.

It is best to wash the cammies separately from the rest of the laundry to prevent dye transfer. Blue jeans and colored clothes can bleed and the staining is difficult to remove.

For tough stains, use a commercial enzyme-based stain remover. Work the stain remover into the fabric and allow it to work for at least 15 minutes before washing. No not use harsher chemicals like acetone or turpentine to attempt to remove stains. These chemicals will reduce the flame resistant qualities of the fabric.

The fabric used for combat uniforms is wrinkle resistant. Using starch and ironing the fabric can damage the fabric and the Velcro used to secure some pockets and badges.

Since you saved time by not having to iron, attention can be paid to keeping suede combat boots looking sharp.

Skip the Dry Cleaner

Dry cleaning chemicals, even those that promise to be green, can destroy the permethrin coating and fire-resistant finish. If you choose to use a professional cleaner, clearly state that the uniforms should be washed and not dry cleaned.

It is safe to use a professional dry cleaner for dress uniforms. Always clean promptly after wearing to prevent set-in stains and odor. Store dress uniforms in cotton storage bags, not the plastic dry cleaning bags to prevent damage from trapped moisture. 

Once your service to the country is completed, carefully store your uniforms, medals, and accessories for generations to come.

Article Sources
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  1. Marine Corps Uniform Regulations. Department of the Navy.