How To Clean Life Jackets (Get Rid Of Smells, Mold & Mildew)

Knowing how to clean a life jacket correctly can be important if you want your PFD (Personal Flotation Device) to last you a long time. And if you’ve spent a lot of money on your PFD, then chances are, you’ll want it to last as long as possible.

We’ve put together some information that can help you look after your life jacket and keep it clean so that it’s ready when you are.

Why Should You Keep Your Life Jacket And PFD Clean?

Prevent Mold And Mildew

Mold and mildew can damage the materials on your life jacket and can render your jacket useless. As well as the obvious smell caused by mold and mildew, it can weaken the fibers, which may not be apparent until a tear appears. It could also spread to the inner foam and affect the buoyancy of the life jacket, especially if stored in a dark place or small space with little ventilation.

Keeping your PFD clean and storing it correctly when it’s dry can help you to prevent the build-up of mold or mildew and help you avoid mildew odor when boating season returns. Store your life jackets somewhere dry.

Prevent Stains

Just like with your clothing, any substances that come into contact with your life jacket should ideally be cleaned off straight away in order to prevent stains. Wearing leaves oils from your skin. Sunscreens can also build up on your life jacket and can begin to leave visible stains if left for long periods.

Tough stains can be difficult to get out and can damage the exterior fabric and interior foam, which could affect the performance of your life jacket in emergency situations. A stain on your PFD could also lead to bacteria and mold growth. So you want to keep your personal flotation device functional by keeping it clean.

US Coast Guard Approval

The US Coast Guard requires your life jacket to be in good condition in order for it to be considered approved for federal regulations. If your PFD is dirty, moldy, with visible spores, or in bad condition, you may find that it doesn’t meet the standards, which could result in a fine.

What’s Needed To Clean A Life Jacket?

  • Mild soap (dish soap or equivalent)
  • Bucket
  • Running water (hose or shower)
  • Soft bristled brush
  • Sponge

How To Clean A Life Jacket

Method 1 - Standard Neoprene (Soap And Water)

Step 1: Rinse Your Life Jacket

Before you begin the cleaning, it can be a good idea to hose down your PFD with clean water to get rid of any loose dirt but be careful you don't use too much pressure. You should rinse your life jacket regularly, even if you don't clean it completely. But it should be cleaned monthly.

Step 2: Fill Your Bucket

Fill your bucket or plastic bin with clean water and add a small amount of mild soap. Dishwashing soap can be an ideal cleaning solution for this but you should avoid using industrial cleaning agents or chlorine bleach directly on your PFD. Your water can be cold or lukewarm, but it might be best to avoid using hot water in case it affects the buoyancy material.

Step 3: Soak Your PFD

Place your PFD into your bucket of mild detergent solution and submerge it in the water.

Step 4: Give It A Scrub

Using your soft brush, gently scrub over your life jacket to remove any red mud, dirt or stains. You can use your sponge instead if you prefer, or use the sponge on the fabric areas and your brush on the straps and buckles.

Step 5: Rinse It Off

Once you’ve cleaned over the PFD it’s time to rinse it with clean water, either with your hose or shower.

Step 6: Hang It Up To Dry

Once your PFD is fully rinsed and free of soap, hang it up to let it air dry or hang it over a clothes dryer next to a rotating fan (avoid tumble dryers). You may find it’s better to dry it outside, as long as you have a shady spot that’s not in direct sunlight.

Alternatively, you can hang it up over your bathtub or shower to drip dry.

Video: Proper Care of Your PFD 2.4

Make sure your life jacket is completely dry before you put it away or you could open the door to more problems, including mold and mildew development on the foam inside.

Method 2 - Inflatable Life Jackets

Step 1: Remove The CO2 Cartridge

Before you begin to clean your inflatable life jacket completely, you should remove the CO2 cartridge following the manufacturer’s instructions. You should also remove the water sensor bobbin from automatic inflation systems.

Step 2: Deflate the Life Jacket

Make sure your PFD is fully deflated before you start the cleaning process. But you may want to unpack it so that you can clean the air chambers.

Step 3: Use Soap And Water

Similar to the steps in the method above, clean your life jacket using mild soap and cool water. Other substances and harsh chemicals could cause damage to the materials, which could damage performance.

Scrub down your life jacket using a soft brush or sponge.

Step 4: Rinse It Well

After scrubbing off the dirt using soapy water, rinse the PFD using clean water.

Step 5: Hang To Dry

Allow your PFD to air dry by hanging it up somewhere that’s well ventilated and out of direct sunlight.

Step 6: Re-Arm The PFD

Once your jacket is completely dry, repack the air chambers and install the CO2 cylinder and the bobbin so that it’s re-armed. You shouldn't place heavy objects on top.

Can I Put My Life Jacket In The Washing Machine?

No, it’s not recommended that you put your PFD in the washing machine, as the spin cycles could damage the fabric and components, including the flotation material.

Finishing Off

Hopefully you enjoyed our tutorial and found it easy to follow. We know how annoying it can be to find that your PFD is dirty when you need it, so giving it a good scrub before you store it can make it less frustrating when the season re-starts.

 Remember, mild soap and water can be the safest way to clean your PFD to make sure it stays in good working order. And remember to always store life jackets away from moisture and humidity after they've completely dried.

Leave us a comment with your thoughts, especially if you have any tips you want to share with us.
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