Body armor plays an important role in personal protective gear, providing protection against a range of ballistic threats. Which is why its critical to properly understand how to clean body armor and maintain body armor.

There are two main types of body armor: soft armor and hard armor. Each type is designed for different threat levels and has unique properties that must be considered in their care and maintenance. As the adage goes, “Take care of your gear, and it will take care of you.” Let’s get into how to best care for this life saving equipment. 

Types of Body Armor Plates

Body armor comes in two main forms: hard and soft armor. Each type is designed for different threat levels and comes with unique considerations for their care and maintenance.

Soft Body Armor

Soft body armor is the most ubiquitous type of body armor, and is the essence of the commonly known “Bulletproof vest.” Bulletproof vest is possibly the largest misnomer, in part because nothing is truly bulletproof, but also because these are only capable of stopping handgun rounds. The reason soft body armor is so common is because handguns make up over 90% of shootings, and soft armor is light, concealable, and easy to wear. Kevlar is the best know armor material on the market, however UHMWPE has increased significantly in popularity. 

Kevlar

Kevlar’s unique molecular structure affords it exceptional tensile strength relative to its weight, making it five times stronger than steel on an equal-weight basis. This capability effectively dissipates and absorbs the energy from incoming projectiles, rendering them less lethal.

Soft body armor made of Kevlar is particularly adept at countering handgun ammunition and sharp-edged weapons, making it the preferred choice for many law enforcement and security personnel. However, like all materials, Kevlar has its vulnerabilities. Extended exposure to sunlight, moisture, and certain chemicals can degrade its protective qualities, emphasizing the need for proper storage and periodic inspection.

UHMWPE

Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE) is a premier soft body armor. Made up of incredibly long chains of polyethylene, UHMWPE boasts a high tensile strength while maintaining a lightweight, making it a sought-after material for protective gear. Soft body armor crafted from UHMWPE is impressively resistant to bullets and much lighter than its counterparts, including Kevlar.

This reduced weight enhances the wearer’s mobility and comfort, particularly during extended periods of use. However, like all materials, UHMWPE isn’t invulnerable and can degrade with prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light or extreme temperatures, necessitating careful storage and handling.

Hard Body Armor

Hard body armor is worn in a plate carrier, body armor vest, or backpack. It is designed to protect against rifle threats, certain plates are even designed to stop armor piercing rounds, such as National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Level IV rated armor. Ceramic armor tends to be lighter than steel, however steel armor is incredibly durable. UHMWPE can be used to make either hard or soft armor, and has become very popular due to its lightweight nature. 

Ceramic Body Armor

Ceramic armor plates are known for their lightweight design and excellent protection against high velocity threats. However, ceramic armor does have an expiration date, typically about 5-10 years from the manufacture date. To maintain their integrity and effectiveness, it is important to handle ceramic plates with care, avoid dropping them, and store them in a cool, dry place.

Steel Body Armor

Steel body armor is the heaviest option available, but provides solid protection and has at least a 20-year life span. Steel body armor plates should be regularly checked for rust or corrosion, and any surface damage should be addressed promptly to prevent further degradation. It’s also recommended to store them in a dry, low humidity environment to prevent moisture-related damage.

Polyethylene Body Armor

Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE) armor is lightweight, buoyant, and resistant to moisture and UV light. Like ceramic plates, polyethylene armor typically has a lifespan of about 5 years. It’s essential to store these plates in a cool, dry place and avoid exposing them to high temperatures, as heat can degrade the polyethylene fibers over time.

UHMWPE armor heavily relies on the bonds between fibers to remain integrity, these bonds can degrade overtime, with abuse, and due to outside factors such as moisture and heat. 

Caring For Body Armor Dos & Don’ts

It’s crucial to understand what not to do with your body armor plates and carriers, as these practices can compromise the integrity and functionality of the protective gear.

Don’t Open Plate Covers

Never attempt to open the covers of armor panels. The panel covers are specially designed to keep the internal ballistic materials intact and in place. If these covers are compromised, it could significantly affect the protective ability of the armor. If the integrity of the panel cover is compromised, contact your agency representative or the manufacturer immediately.

Don’t Bend Soft Armor

Avoid unnecessarily bending, flexing, compressing, or creasing soft armor panels. Such actions can degrade the ballistic materials over time, impacting their effectiveness and protective capabilities.

Folded soft armor kevlar bulletproof vest front and side view - Tacticon Armament
Folded Soft Armor

Don’t Drop Plates

UHMWPE ceramic hard body armor plate dropped - Tacticon Armament
UHMWPE Ceramic Hard Body Armor Plate

Be especially cautious not to drop plates made of ceramic materials on hard surfaces. Such impacts can cause breaks or cracks that can dramatically impair their performance.

Cracked Steel Plate Body Armor - Tacticon Armament
Cracked Steel Plate Body Armor

Body Armor Care Do’s

While there are specific things you should do to care for your body armor plates and carriers, there are also some general rules to always keep in mind when handling and caring for plates and vests.

Do Follow Manufacturer Instructions

Always follow the manufacturer’s care instructions. These instructions are based on extensive testing and research, and they are designed to maximize the lifespan and effectiveness of the armor.

Do Regular Inspections

Regularly inspect your ballistic panel covers. Look for signs of wear such as cuts, tears, stitching separation, sealing problems, and worn or frayed fabric. Early detection of these issues can prevent further damage and maintain the protective capabilities of the armor.

Do Handle With Care

Handle all armor plates, particularly those incorporating ceramic materials, with care. These plates can be fragile, and rough handling can potentially cause damage, reducing their protective properties. When not in use, store them in a safe and secure location. Regardless of the material that the plate is made of it is best practice to treat all life-saving equipment with respect. 

Moisture & Wet Conditions

Moisture can pose significant threats to the integrity and effectiveness of body armor. Both soft and hard body armor are susceptible to damage from prolonged exposure to wet conditions, which can degrade the materials and compromise their ballistic performance.

Body Armor Moisture Care Do’s

To ensure the longevity of your body armor and prevent moisture damage, there are several practices you should adopt:

Do Wear a Shirt Under Your Vest

Wearing a shirt under your vest can minimize sweat transferring to the vest, providing an extra layer of protection against moisture. This can also make wearing the vest more comfortable. 

Do Dry Your Armor Fully Before Storing

Never store your body armor while it’s still damp or wet. Moisture can encourage mold growth and degrade the materials of the vest. After use, leave your carrier out to dry in a well ventilated area before storing it.

Body Armor Moisture Care Don’ts

When it comes to moisture and body armor, there are certain practices you should avoid:

Don’t Get Your Armor Soaking Wet

While this might be unavoidable in certain situations, such as a sudden rainstorm, you should avoid soaking your body armor whenever possible. Excessive moisture can have a negative impact on the integrity and protective capabilities of the armor.

Cleaning Body Armor Dos & Don’ts

Cleaning your body armor is an essential part of maintaining its protective qualities. However, there are certain considerations to keep in mind, particularly with soft body armor, although these guidelines can also apply to carriers and vests.

Body Armor Cleaning Don’ts

When it comes to cleaning body armor, certain actions can actually cause more harm than good. Here are some key practices to avoid:

  • Don’t dry clean, machine wash, or machine dry soft armor panels. The detergents, dry-cleaning solvents, and mechanical agitation in laundry equipment can damage the panels.
  • Don’t use any chemicals not approved by the manufacturer. Bleach or other harsh chemicals can compromise the protective qualities of the armor.
  • Don’t rinse, soak, submerge, or spray panels. Smudges, marks, or soiling should be hand cleaned.
  • Don’t leave soft armor panels to dry outside. Certain types of ballistic materials can degrade when exposed to sunlight, even in the shade.

Body Armor Cleaning Do’s

To maintain the effectiveness and longevity of your body armor, follow these practices:

Soft Body Armor Do’s

  • Spot-Clean Your Armor: Remove panels from the carrier and gently wipe down the outer panel cover using a damp sponge or soft cloth and cold water. 
  • Avoid aggressive scrubbing or harsh detergents.Air-Dry Panels: Allow the panels to dry flat, avoiding folding or creasing while drying. This helps maintain the shape and integrity of the armor.
  • Reinsert Panels: Once completely dry, insert the panels back into the carrier. Ensure each panel’s strike or wear face is correctly oriented.

Body Armor Carrier Do’s

  • Remove Detachable Straps and Fasteners: If your carrier features detachable straps and fasteners, remove them prior to washing. If they’re not detachable, place them in their secured position.
  • Hand Wash the Carrier: Use cold water and a mild detergent intended for delicate fabrics to gently clean your carrier (unless the manufacturer specifically recommends machine washing).
  • Rinse and Dry: Thoroughly rinse the carrier and hang it up indoors to air dry. Like the panels, avoid folding or creasing the carrier while it dries.

Body Armor Storage & Ventilation

The way you store and ventilate your body armor can significantly impact its effectiveness and longevity. Here are some dos and don’ts when it comes to these crucial aspects of body armor care.

Storage Do’s

When storing body armor, especially after use and cleaning, certain practices can help maintain its integrity:

  • Ensure that the vest lies flat when stored. Folding or rolling can damage its structure and effectiveness.
  • Store your body armor away from direct sunlight, which can degrade the materials over time.
  • Keep your body armor clean, ensuring it’s free from dirt and other contaminants that could deteriorate the protective materials.
  • Ensure that your armor is dry and free from moisture when stored. Prolonged exposure to moisture can weaken the materials.

Storage Don’ts

When it comes to storing soft armor, there are certain things you should avoid:

  • Don’t store armor in a low airflow environment, such as the bottom of a locker. Moisture can accumulate in these spaces, leading to mold and mildew growth.
  • Avoid storing armor in places where it could be exposed to extreme temperatures, like the trunk of a car. Similarly, avoid prolonged exposure to direct sunlight, such as on the rear window deck of a vehicle. 
  • Don’t hang armor by the carrier straps. This can cause the straps to stretch and lose their original shape, altering the armor’s fit and decreasing its effectiveness.
  • Avoid placing your armor on the edge of a table or similar surface where it could potentially fall.
  • Don’t bunch or fold your soft body armor, as this can damage the internal structure.
  • Avoid placing any items, particularly heavy ones, on top of your armor. This can lead to the compression of the protective materials and a decrease in effectiveness.

Transportation Your Body Armor

How you transport your body armor can also have an impact on its lifespan and effectiveness. 

  • Use a vest bag or keep your armor covered to prevent accidental damage during transportation.
  • For both soft and hard armor, aim to lay it flat in a dark or concealed area, such as the trunk or under the seats of your vehicle. This can help protect the armor from physical damage and from exposure to sunlight.
Transporting Body Armor Suit in a Vehicle Trunk - Tacticon Armament
Transporting Body Armor Suit in a Vehicle Trunk

Body Armor Care & Cleaning FAQs

How long is a bulletproof vest good for?

The service life of a bulletproof vest varies based on its material, usage, and care. Typically, a Kevlar vest can last for about 5 years, while a steel armor plate can last around 20 years. Always check the manufacturer’s guidelines for specific information.

Can you leave body armor out overnight?

It’s generally okay to leave body armor out overnight, especially to allow it to air out after use. However, you should avoid leaving it in extreme temperatures or in direct sunlight for prolonged periods.

Can you wash body armor?

The carrier of body armor can usually be washed according to the manufacturer’s instructions. However, the armor plates or panels themselves should not be machine washed or submerged in water. Hot water can degrade Velcro, so make sure to use cold water.

How often should body armor be replaced?

The frequency of replacement depends on the type of armor and how it’s used. Generally, soft body armor should be replaced every 5 years, while hard body armor like steel should last 20 years. Ceramic plates should be replaced every 5-10 years, depending on the directions of the manufacturer. However, if the armor is damaged in any way, it should be replaced immediately.

How do I know if my body armor is expired?

Check the manufacturer’s label on the armor for its expiration date. You should also inspect the armor regularly for signs of wear or damage, such as fraying, tears, or deformations.

Can you reuse body armor?

Yes, body armor is designed to be reusable assuming it has not taken an impact. However, it should be replaced if it has been struck by a bullet or if it shows signs of severe wear or damage.

Final Thoughts

Body armor of any type is a crucial tool designed to protect your life. It’s vital to remember that this life saving equipment requires regular care and maintenance to remain effective. The different types of body armor, from ceramic and steel hard armor to polyethylene soft armor, have specific requirements for handling, cleaning, and storage.

It’s essential to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and avoid activities that could potentially compromise the protective integrity of your armor. Handle your armor gently, avoid unnecessary bending or flexing, especially for soft armor, and always ensure it’s clean and dry before storage. Maintain vigilance for any signs of wear or damage and replace the armor when necessary.

When it comes to moisture, ensure your body armor dries completely after exposure and avoid soaking it when possible. Be cautious about where and how you store your armor; avoid areas with extreme temperatures, low airflow, or direct sunlight.

Cleaning is a delicate task. For soft body armor, spot cleaning and air drying are recommended, while armor carriers may require gentle hand washing. Finally, proper transportation of your armor ensures its durability during transit.

Taking care of your body armor isn’t just about extending its lifespan, but also about ensuring it can effectively protect you when the need arises. As you assess your personal safety needs and evaluate available body armor options, keep these care and maintenance tips in mind. Remember, making informed decisions today can significantly impact your safety tomorrow.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Tacticon Armament.

2 thoughts on “Do’s & Don’ts of Body Armor Care

  1. Hayden Carroll says:

    I can’t imagine that Properly manufactured ceramic plates degrade so much that they must be replaced within the “expiration date”. Granted, assuming proper storage and care is performed.
    It’s all inert materials that don’t degrade. With the exception of rusting, steel is similar.
    Expiration dates with armor are parallel to the manufacturers warranties, and aside from Kevlar armor, (I know nothing about UHMWPE), that expiration date feels more like Manufactured obsolescence than a scientifically found date of degredation.
    The USMC often keeps their ESAPI plates far beyond a typical “expiration date”, granted perform regular stability tests and diagnostics.
    As someone who has been wearing Kevlar and ceramics on duty for years, awesome topic and great writing!

    • Jason Ward says:

      Thank you, it is appreciated! The warranty period has a lot to do with liability at the end of the day and being able to “guarantee” effectiveness.

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