The proper use and care of your body armor vest is essential to maintaining its life throughout the warranted period. It is important to handle Body Armor exactly as specified by the documentation from the manufacturer as improper care or storage can result in damages that render the armor unusable or ineffective against attacks.
The proper care of modern body armor requires taking precautions during cleaning. Every model that complies with NIJ standards comes with an instruction label, which indicates how to clean the components. It is imperative to follow these if you want the body armor to remain in a condition that permits it to continue to fulfill its purpose.
The protective panels, or inserts, of body armor should only be washed by hand with cold water, using a sponge or soft cloth. You can use mild home laundry detergent but anything store-bought contains abrasive particles that can damage the fibers. Most manufacturers strongly advise against submerging the protective panel in water. Bleach (including non-chlorine or peroxide-based bleach) or starch, even when diluted, should be avoided as it reduces the level of protection. If the model of armor comes with a removable carrier, in certain conditions the carrier may be machine washable. However, it is best to check with the manufacturer and follow the instructions on the protective panel and carrier labels.
Most modern body armor is made of water-repellant treated or inherently water-repellant fabrics, which means hand washing is allowed as water won't degrade the ballistic capabilities of the vest. Rinsing thoroughly is important to remove all traces of cleaning agents and to prohibit the accumulation of residual soap film. This is actually quite important as this film can absorb water and reduce the protective properties of certain types of fabrics over time
Body armor fabric should never be dried outdoors, even in the shade. The reason for this is the fact that ultraviolet light is the primal cause for degradation of certain types of ballistic fabric. Tests conclusively demonstrate that ballistic efficiency is significantly and adversely affected by sunlight exposure for extended periods of time. Dry cleaning body armor is another definite 'no'. Keep in mind that deodorizing sprays like Febreeze or Lysol can damage or compromise the carrier material.
Inspecting for Damage
Each wash of your body armor should typically be followed by inspection for any signs of wear or damage. If the protective materials are not covered with a permanent cover (which is highly uncommon for a modern models), and the thread used to sew layers together is wearing badly or the fabric is unraveling, the body armor should be returned to the manufacturer for replacement. Police Officers should under no circumstances attempt to repair armor themselves as this will only result in more severe damage to the structural integrity of the fabric.
Typically, soft body armor sold in the United States is rated for five years of service. That's the standard as put forth by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). However, body armor wear should be calculated based on how it's been worn. This means that a vest that's worn every day over the course of a year will lose its protective capability much faster than one that has been sitting on a shelf and only used sporadically. Unfortunately, there's no generic way to track wear of vests, so the NIJ set five years as a standard. Despite this, after a few years of wear, you are advised to check the ballistic panels on your armor. Look for tears, creases, burns, smells, and damage and generally - anything that seems abnormal or has changed in color or feel. Proper care and storage of your vest will make it last longer. The most common culprits for body armor degradation are heat, moisture and UV light.
Finally, always replace the entire vest even if a single panel is damaged or missing. Wearing your shell carrier without the ballistic panels results in zero protection. Mixing and matching ballistic panels with carriers from different brands or manufacturers voids the manufacturer’s warranty and, again, does not guarantee the same level of protection that the original armor provides.