Gear Guy

Will soap ruin my jacket?

Many high-tech products from jackets to sleeping bags ask that they be washed in a "mild soap." Some say a "pure soap." But none ever give an explanation of what that means, nor a recommendation of any actual brands or nes. Can you share some wisdom? Tad Urumqi, China

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I have to respond to this one simply because of geographic interest. World-savvy readers will know that Tad is writing from a city in western China that has more than one million residents, and one that from my reading largely seems to have sprung from the ground in recent years. So…welcome, Tad!

You’re right—most outdoor clothes come with fairly specific instructions on washing them. Waterproof-breathable garments often come with instructions to avoid liquid detergents, because those products have emulsifiers that can potentially damage the DWR (durable water-resistant) coating on such jackets. Use a powdered detergent instead (look for one without “bleach alternative” or other add-ons). “Pure soap”—which is just that, pure soap, and is labeled as such—is also a good choice. Soap does not contain detergent, and the simple way to define the two is this: Soap is made with natural ingredients, detergent with synthetic. Look for Fels Naptha Laundry Soap bars or something similar.

That said, the Gore-Tex people themselves say it’s OK to use either a powder or liquid, and most other gear makers go along with that. However, DO NOT use a fabric softener or a cleaner such as Woolite. These contain waxes and oils that can seal off the breathability of the garment.

The fact is, most gear makers put their clothes through extensive laundry tests, pretty much beating the crap out of clothes in commercial washers for days at a time to see how they fare. So long as you don’t do anything that chemically changes the surface of the fabrics—such as using a fabric softener or removing a stain with a chemical solvent like paint thinner—it’s pretty hard to do any damage just by trying to keep stuff clean.

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