After scouring through various police forums and product websites, the topic of cleaning body armor and ballistic protection vests is, well, a ripe discussion for today’s first responders.

When triple-digit temperatures soar in places like Texas, Arizona and Florida, these vests can take on a whole new level of stench when routine cleaning and care are neglected. And it takes effort and diligence to keep protective gear funk-free.

Inspector Jim Etzin, EMT-P/IC, EMS coordinator with the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department, shared his team’s vest cleaning protocol. This method comes from Phalanx Defense Systems manufacturer guidelines.

Cleaning ballistic panels and carrier vests

Once the ballistic panels have been removed from the carrier, lay them on a flat surface.

Take a clean, damp cloth, sponge or rag and gently wipe the panels to remove stains, dirt or debris. If necessary, you may choose to use a mild, non-acidic soap or detergent.

What not to do with ballistic panels

  • Do not use bleach or other harsh chemical cleaners.
  • Never iron or apply heat to panels.
  • Do not machine wash or tumble dry.

What to do with carrier vests

To clean your carrier vest, remove all ballistic panels, trauma inserts and plates. The preferred method of cleaning the front and back carrier is to hand wash it.

The carrier may also be machine washed on the gentle cycle using cold water with a mild detergent. When complete, lay it flat to air dry or tumble dry, using the lowest temperature setting on your dryer.

What not to do with carrier vests

According to Phalanx Defense Systems, follow these tips:

  • No bleach or other harsh cleaners.
  • No dry cleaning.
  • Avoid deodorizing sprays, such as Febreze or Lysol, which may damage the carrier materials over time.

More cleaning considerations

cleaning body armorCleaning body armor was a regular part of the job for retired Police Lt. Brian Murphy from the Oak Creek (Wis.) Police Department.

He understands the stink factor with body armor, but also cautions first responders to think about how vests are designed to protect your life. That’s why proper care matters.

“I was shot 15 times,” he said. “I took three in the (same) vest.”

When discussing the ballistic panel, Murphy said, “If you soak it or submerge in water, that is wrong because if there is a pinprick you cannot see, it will compromise the ballistic panel.”

To clean the panels, remove them from carrier vest and wipe them down with a mild soap.

“You can use a decent amount of soapy water, then wipe it off and lay it flat to dry,” Murphy said.

The carrier vest can be machine washed on the gentle cycle. “It does not offer any ballistic protection. It just holds the ballistic panel,” Murphy said.

The warranty for body armor lasts about five years, according to National Institute of Justice.
How do you know if the ballistic panel is still doing its job? Murphy said that is a hard question to answer.

“A normal (ammunition) round will go five to six layers deep,” he said. “You can say it smells better (if you wash it), but the material may be denigrated and you would not know it.”

Other ways to clean body armor

On various social media forums and Facebook groups, first responders share advice about how they keep their body armor vests odor free.

You should always read the care and cleaning instructions on a garment before washing or dousing it with cleaning products or aerosols. Why? Because moisture and chemicals can compromise the integrity of the vest, according to product guidelines.

Some people report body odor issues with their armor because of location, how much they sweat and how often the garment is worn, according to body armor users.

To stay ahead of the stench, some first responders stock their laundry rooms with odor neutralizing products such as Febreze. Whether the vest cleaning guidelines allow it or not, it’s your call how you decide to wash it.

For carrier vests, a popular go-to product is Febreze Sport, or extra strength, according to members of the Officer.com forum.

Another forum member stressed the importance of using products to absorb additional moisture after air drying the carrier vest. They use a container of DampRid in their locker at work to ensure the vest is completely dry before use. The product draws moisture out of the air and help prevents mold and mildew.

To give carrier vests a thorough cleaning, some first responders toss them into the washer about once a week on the gentle cycle. Always remove the plates or ballistic panels before laundering the vest, however. If your squad allows it, vests can be worn on the outside of the uniform to cut down on sweat.

If the funk factor goes beyond the edge of stench — and people’s eyes start to water when you enter a room — consider soaking the carrier vest.

According to a spouse of a police officer, she uses a 3:1 ratio of vinegar and hot water, with a healthy sprinkle of baking soda and Febreze. You can check out that method from the The Police Wife Life Facebook page.

Learn more in our course about ambulance safety, crew resource management and EMS culture of safety.