It certainly does get a bit confusing. But its safe to say that basically all high-end gear makers recognize real-world conditions. They test-wash their stuff in everyday washing machines, using everyday cleaning products. So for the most part, I have no qualms about washing fleece, Gore-Tex, soft shells, wool or synthetic long underwear, and the rest of my gear in the same detergent I use on my blue jeansliquid Tide. That goes for down or synthetic-fill jackets or sleeping bags (take care to use front-loading washing machines, not top-loaders, as a top-loaders agitator can damage that kind of gear). There also is a case to be made for using specialized detergents such as Nikwax Down Wash ($9; nikwax.com) on down, as it is formulated to protect the delicate oils that keep down soft.
Nikwax Down Wash
Ive also had some experience with spray-ons designed to restore the durable water-repellent coating (DWR) on shells. Nikwax TX-Direct Spray-On ($21) does a good job on this count, re-creating a garments ability to bead up water (although it does not last as long as the factory DWR).
Otherwise, I dont encourage a lot of add-on washing solutions because A), theyre fairly expensive, and B) a garment comes from the factory with carefully thought-out coatings and treatments.
As a side note, do NOT use fabric softener on outdoor wear. Fabric softeners leave a waxy deposit, which can inhibit a fabrics ability to wick moisture. If you have done so, dont sweat it too much, as another wash or two should eliminate the softener.
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