How to Care for Life Jackets

Mother and son on pier
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No matter what your mother told you, most laundry chores are not a matter of life and death. There is an exception, however—the care and cleaning of life jackets or a personal flotation device (PFD). If you or your family enjoy being around the water, then life jackets are essential for your safety and usually required by law. Keeping life jackets clean will extend their life expectancy and functionality plus your family will be happier to wear a life jacket that is clean and fresh.

Care of Life Jackets/PFDs

During your day on the water, avoid leaving life jackets in direct sun for long periods of time. This can cause deterioration and fading of fabrics. After every water outing with life jackets there are several things that should be done:

  • If used in salt water, rinse the jackets with clean water. If there is any mud, sand, or visible stain, rinse off well. 
  • After rinsing, let the jackets drip dry before stowing. Never try to speed the drying time by using a clothes dryer or any type of direct heat. It is best to allow the jackets to dry out of direct sunlight if possible.
  • Check each life jacket for rips, tears, or holes. Be certain that all straps are firmly attached and that all hardware is functioning correctly.
  • After the life jackets are dry to the touch, check for any puckering or shrinkage and be sure that no water is caught in the interior foam and that there is no mildew odor.
  • Life jackets should be stored in a dry, cool, dark place. If stowing in a small space on a boat or in a plastic bin, do not bend or place heavy objects on top of the jackets as this can cause crushing and damage performance.
  • Never store a heavily soiled life jacket. Stains become food for mold and mildew growth which weakens fabrics and destroy the effectiveness of the device.
  • When jackets are not going to be used for an extended period of time, remove from boat or potentially damp storage. They will last much longer if stored in conditioned, even temperature and humidity locations.

How to Thoroughly Clean Life Jackets

Life jackets should be cleaned immediately if stains like mud, food, or sunscreen are visible. Even those that "look clean" should be cleaned monthly or at the end of the season. Every wearing leaves oils from skin and sun care products on the fabric.

Pick a sunny, dry day to do the cleaning. Spread a tarp or plastic drop cloth on the ground and get to work. Here are a list of necessary supplies:

  • Heavy duty laundry detergent with enough enzymes to break apart stain molecules (Tide, Persil)
  • Plastic bucket
  • Soft bristle brush
  • Water hose
  • Drying rack or clothesline

Fill a bucket with cool water and about 1/4 cup liquid laundry detergent. If you are using a powdered detergent, be sure to stir well to dissolve it completely. There is no need to whip up a bunch of suds because it will only make rinsing more difficult.

Place the life jackets with all straps and hardware unfastened on the tarp and using the detergent solution and soft brush, scrub each side of the jacket. For tough stains like red mud or food, apply a dab of the detergent directly to the stain and work in with the brush. Allow to work for at least 15 minutes before rinsing.

Rinse each jacket well using a hose or plenty of water. Be sure to smooth fabrics and get into any crevices to rinse completely. Hang the jackets to drip dry, preferably out of direct sunlight. If you must hang inside to dry, use a rotating fan to speed the process. Never place a life jacket in a clothes dryer.

If the jackets have mold or mildew, move to an outside area and brush away any visible spores before wetting the fabric. Scrub as suggested but add an oxygen-based bleach to the cleaning solution (OxiClean or Country Save Bleach are brand names). This will help remove the remaining dark stains. Do not use chlorine bleach directly on the jackets as it will weaken fabrics and can damage the interior foam.

Do not attempt to clean a jacket with industrial cleaning agents or something like gasoline or paint thinner. The polyester or nylon coating will be damaged by these chemicals. They can also dissolve the foam that makes the device functional.

Never place a life jacket in a standard top load washer. The agitation can break the foam and render the jacket useless. A large front load washer can be used but should always be placed on a low spin rate. A high speed spin can be damaging.

When Is It Time to Replace a Life Jacket?

With care, most life jackets can last many years. However, there comes a time that the PFD must be replaced. Life jackets should be tested at the beginning of every season or periodically if you live in a year-round water friendly climate. A reputable dealer can check the devices or you can do it yourself by testing buoyancy in a pool. A safe device should be able to keep an average-sized person afloat.

If the outer fabric or covering is torn or has started to split or break down, the jacket is not safe. The flotation material can escape and cause a disaster. If the material is highly faded and you suspect that the fabric is weak, try tugging on a strap or pinch the fabric and try to tear it. If it tears, discard the jacket.

Inspect the foam or padding by squeezing lightly. If the foam feels hard, brittle, or broken, the jacket should be replaced.

Any life jacket infested with mold should be discarded to avoid inhaling mold spores. It is quite possible that the mold has moved into the padding or flotation and the jacket is no longer safe.

Before discarding a life jacket, cut off all straps and even cut it into pieces to prevent others from mistaking it as a viable safety device.