how to wash life jackets

How Do You Wash Life Jackets?

Life jackets, vital components of marine safety, are designed to offer buoyancy and reduce the likelihood of drowning, especially during water sports, boating, or any other water-related activities. They are essentially personal flotation devices (PFDs), and they come in various types and sizes, tailored to specific activities and user requirements, from kayaking to sailing. Just as a car needs servicing, these life jackets require regular maintenance to ensure they remain in optimum condition.

The accumulation of impurities such as dirt, sweat, saltwater, and even residues from freshwater bodies can degrade the material of the life jacket, affecting both its functionality and aesthetic appeal. Cleaning it isn’t just about appearance; it’s about ensuring the life jacket provides the buoyancy and safety it’s designed for.

Here are three primary methods for cleaning life jackets:

Hand Washing Life Jackets

Hand washing is often recommended because it’s gentle on the life jacket’s material. The use of mild soap helps in preserving the fabric while ensuring a thorough cleaning.

  1. Gather Supplies: You’ll need a basin or bucket, cold water, mild soap, and a soft cloth or brush.
  2. Prepare the Cleaning Solution: Combine cold water with a bit of mild soap to create a gentle cleaning mixture.
  3. Initial Rinse: Before introducing the soap, give the life jacket a rinse with fresh water to wash off any superficial dirt or salt.
  4. Gentle Scrubbing: Using your soft cloth or brush, scrub the jacket gently after dipping it into the soap solution.
  5. Spot Treatment: For stubborn stains or marks, concentrate on those areas, ensuring you lift off as much of the dirt as possible.
  6. Rinsing: After scrubbing, rinse the life jacket thoroughly to remove any soap traces.
  7. Water Removal: Gently shake the life jacket to rid it of excess water.
  8. Air Drying: Hang it in a shaded area with ample ventilation. Direct sunlight can degrade the material, so it’s essential to find a suitable drying spot.

Machine Washing (For Specific Jackets)

Machine washing is a method suited for certain life jackets that come with a machine-washable tag. Always consult the manufacturer’s recommendations to avoid unintentional damage.

  1. Label Check: Ensure your life jacket is labeled as machine-washable.
  2. Preparation: Secure all zippers and straps to prevent any tangling or damage during the washing process.
  3. Detergent Selection: Opt for a mild detergent, steering clear of bleach or other potent chemicals.
  4. Washing Machine Loading: Insert the life jacket into the machine. If you have one, use a mesh laundry bag for added protection.
  5. Settings: Use a cold water setting and opt for a delicate cycle.
  6. Post-Wash Inspection: Once done, check the life jacket for any leftover soap.
  7. Additional Rinsing: If soap residues are detected, run another rinse cycle without detergent.
  8. Water Removal: Shake the life jacket gently post-wash.
  9. Proper Air Drying: Just like with hand washing, ensure you dry the life jacket in a shaded area, preventing mold or mildew growth.

Beyond these cleaning methods, it’s crucial to inspect life jackets regularly for wear and tear. Checking buoyancy levels, ensuring the straps are intact, and confirming that there is no degradation of the material are all essential to guaranteeing the life jacket’s safety functionality.

Spot Cleaning Life Jackets

Spot cleaning is ideal for addressing specific areas on a life jacket that have stains or marks. This method offers a quick fix without the need for a full wash, ensuring your jacket remains presentable and functional.

  1. Gather Needed Items: Have on hand a basin, mild soap, cold water, and a soft cloth or brush.
  2. Prepare a Soap Mix: Combine a small quantity of the mild soap with cold water in the basin.
  3. Dip and Dab: Soak the cloth or brush in the soap mix, then gently dab the stained area. Avoid vigorous scrubbing.
  4. Work on the Stain: Use gentle circular motions to lift the dirt from the stain.
  5. Check the Progress: Periodically check the stain to see if it’s lifting. Repeat the dabbing process as necessary.
  6. Clear the Soap: Once satisfied, use a clean cloth soaked in plain water to wipe away any soap from the area.
  7. Blot the Area: Using a dry towel, blot the cleaned spot to remove excess moisture.
  8. Let it Dry: Allow the cleaned spot to air dry. Place the jacket in a shaded area with good air circulation.
  9. Inspect for Completion: Once dry, check the spot to ensure the stain is gone and there’s no soap residue left.

Preventive Maintenance and Care for Life Jackets

Life jackets, like any other piece of safety equipment, benefit from preventive maintenance. By ensuring regular checks and care, you can spot potential problems before they become significant issues, preserving the jacket’s life and efficacy.

  1. Regular Inspection: Periodically check your life jacket for signs of wear and tear. Look for frayed straps, broken zippers, or compromised stitching.
  2. Buoyancy Test: At least once a season, test the life jacket’s buoyancy. If it doesn’t keep you afloat as it should, it might be time for a replacement.
  3. Avoid Sharp Objects: When using or storing your life jacket, keep it away from sharp objects that could puncture or tear its material.
  4. Stay Clear of Heat: Direct heat sources can damage the jacket’s fabric. Avoid storing it near heaters or in the trunk of your car during hot days.
  5. Use Safety Accessories: Equip your life jacket with safety reflectors for visibility, especially if you’re out on the water during low light conditions. Attach a safety whistle for emergency situations.
  6. Dry Properly After Each Use: Even if you don’t wash it, ensure the life jacket is dried properly after each use to prevent mold or mildew.
  7. Store With Care: Hang the life jacket or place it flat in a cool, dry area. If you have related safety gear, like immersion suits or throw bags, store them nearby for easy access.


What should I avoid when cleaning my life jacket?

Using inappropriate cleaning agents or methods can negatively affect the life jacket’s performance and durability. Harsh chemicals, bleach, and strong detergents can break down the jacket’s material and impair its buoyancy. It’s also vital to steer clear of direct sunlight during the drying process, as prolonged exposure to UV rays can degrade the material, leading to a weakened structure.

Can I use bleach to clean my life jacket?

Using bleach on your life jacket is not advisable. While bleach is effective in removing stains, it can weaken the jacket’s fibers and reduce its effectiveness. This could compromise safety during use. Always opt for milder cleaning agents that are gentle on the jacket’s material.

How often should you wash a life jacket?

While it’s a good practice to rinse your life jacket with fresh water after each use, especially after exposure to saltwater, a comprehensive wash might not be necessary every time. Depending on how frequently you use the jacket and the conditions it’s exposed to, a thorough cleaning once or twice a season should suffice. Regular checks for dirt, grime, or mildew will help determine when a complete wash is needed.

How can I ensure maximum visibility with my life jacket?

To enhance visibility, especially during dusk, dawn, or cloudy days, attach life jacket reflectors or safety lights. This ensures that you’re easily seen by other boaters or rescuers.

What if my life jacket has been submerged in water for a long period?

If a life jacket has been submerged, especially in saltwater, rinse it with fresh water and allow it to dry thoroughly. Salt can degrade the material over time. Additionally, check for buoyancy and inspect for any other potential damages.

Is there specific care for life jackets used in water sports?

Water sports can expose life jackets to more wear and tear than typical usage. Regularly check for damages, ensure proper fit, and rinse with fresh water after each use. For sports like jet skiing or whitewater rafting, ensure the life jacket is of the appropriate type and rating.

What about life jackets for non-human users, like pets?

Dog life jackets are designed specifically for our canine friends. Ensure a snug fit, regularly check for damages, and rinse after use. The principles of cleaning and maintenance largely remain the same.


Life jackets are essential safety gear, and proper care ensures they remain effective and durable. Hand washing, machine washing (for select jackets), and spot cleaning are effective methods for maintaining a clean life jacket. Always avoid harsh chemicals and store the jacket properly to maximize its lifespan. Regular cleaning, combined with appropriate storage, will ensure your life jacket or any marine safety gear is ready for any aquatic adventure.