Waterproof MEC brand jacket showing water beading on the surface

How to wash waterproof jackets and pants

When your waterproof jacket was new, you might have noticed the way water beaded up on its fabric. A quick shake was all you needed to get rid of that moisture.

But after a season of adventures, your shell might need a little TLC. Maybe it’s starting to look a bit soggy – a phenomenon known as “wetting out.” Or maybe it’s just plain dirty.

Test whether it’s time to wash and re-waterproof your rain jacket by laying it flat and spraying it with water. If the water beads up, like it does on the fabric on the right, you’re all set. But if the garment absorbs the water droplets, like the one on the left, it’s time to give it a wash and restore the waterproof finish.

A waterproof-breathable jacket wetting out and another one with water beading up

Waterproof-breathable fabric wetting out (left) compared to the nicely beading water on the fabric on the right.

Why wash waterproof jackets or rain pants?

A waterproof-breathable membrane helps move moisture away from your body, while a durable water-repellent (DWR) treatment keeps rain and splashes out. But over time, the membrane and DWR finish can become clogged with dirt, sunscreen and oil from your skin, which makes them less effective. You know it’s time to wash your waterproof-breathable jacket or pants when they start wetting out, or when you see dirt or visible stains.

For small stains or dirt patches, try spot-washing with a wet cloth. But if your jacket’s really dirty, it might be time for a full wash.

How to wash a waterproof jacket or pants

Use these steps to get your waterproof-breathable jacket or pants clean. Then follow up with the treatment to restore the waterproofing on your garment.

  1. Check the inner tag for the manufacturer’s washing instructions. We’ll go over the best practices for most waterproof-breathable fabrics, but it’s good to make sure they match what your jacket’s maker recommends.
  1. Rinse out your washing machine’s detergent dispenser, if possible, to get rid of any residue.
  1. Use a technical wash made especially for waterproof outerwear, or any mild detergent without additives like stain removers. Don’t use fabric softener, powder detergent or bleach – these could permanently damage the waterproof membrane.
  1. Look over your garment and spot clean any areas of heavy dirt with a damp, clean cloth. You can also apply tech wash directly to grease or stubborn stains.
  1. Close all zippers and hook-and-loop closures to prevent snags. Don’t forget to check the pockets.
  1. Throw your garment in the washing machine and follow the instructions on the clothing label or the washing bottle.

How to re-waterproof your jacket or pants

Once the wash is complete, you have a few options. You can restore the DWR treatment for waterproof-breathable shells by using either a wash-in treatment or a spray-on treatment.

A wash-in waterproofer gives you more even coverage and is less messy. It adds a water-repellent DWR coating to the entire garment. Simply add the treatment to the washing machine, and follow the washing instructions on your garment or bottle.

A spray-on waterproofer is your best bet if your jacket or pants have a lining or insulation. The spray lets you target areas that are most likely to wet out (like the shoulders), without coating areas where you don’t want it (like the insulation or fleece lining). When you apply the spray, make sure the garment is clean and damp. Follow the instructions on the product. Apply it evenly, work from the middle to the edges, and use a clean cloth to remove any excess liquid before drying. Make sure not to miss seams and awkward spots like elbows.

Whether you’ve used a wash-in or spray-on, you’ll need to dry your jacket or pants. Always check the label first, but as a general rule, set your dryer to air dry or low heat for 20 minutes to restore the repellency.

Once it’s dry, test your jacket’s water repellency by laying it flat and spraying water on it. If the water beads up, you’re all set – you’ve restored your jacket’s waterproofing. If your jacket still wets through, it’s time to reapply a waterproof finish. Test your jacket one more time, and you’re good to go.

Can you dry clean GORE-TEX or other waterproof fabrics?

It’s best to wash your waterproof-breathable gear in a regular washing machine. You can wash these items alone, or with a small load of lightly soiled clothing.

If you absolutely have to dry clean your jacket or pants, Gore recommends asking the cleaner to use clear distilled hydrocarbon solvent to rinse it, and then spraying DWR on the outside before drying.

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Top photo credit: Vancouver Institute of Media Arts