Flame-resistant (FR) clothing is specialized PPE designed to protect the wearer in the event of a flash fire or electric arc flash. In some industries (such as oil and gas and electrical), FR garments are regular PPE, worn day in and day out. For employees in these fields, it is paramount that the flame-resistant properties the garments last for the entire life of the PPE.
There are many environmental stressors that can decrease the effectiveness of flame-resistant materials, but the most common way to ruin FR garments is washing it the wrong way. This is just as true for "inherently" FR clothing as it is for fabrics treated with FR chemicals (although the latter seems more sensitive to chlorine).
No one wants to work in protective clothing that has lost its flame-resistant properties. In this article, I'll go over everything you need to know about washing and laundering FR clothing.
What Is the Life Expectancy of FR Clothing?
Like any other PPE, FR clothing has a finite life expectancy, even when you follow the manufacturer's recommendations to the letter. There's no precise timeline for this, but you can expect the following:
- Treated cotton: 12 to 16 months
- 88/12 cotton-nylon blends: 18 to 30 months
- Nomex® blends: 2.5 to 4 years
Should I Clean FR Clothing Before First Use?
Like any other garments, it is recommended that you wash your FR clothing before wearing them for the first time. This will not only shrink it to its "wearable" size, but it will remove a lot of harmful chemicals that have been used in the manufacturing and dyeing process that could be come into contact with your body, especially through perspiration.
Should I Wash My FR Clothing or Use an Industrial Laundering Service?
Either of these options would do just fine, provided the service provider is aware that they are washing FR garments. This is important for a variety of reasons, but the most important one is temperature. Industrial laundering can involve higher temperatures than your home washer and dryer can reach. These high temperatures can start the chemical reaction the material usually undergoes during a workplace fire, which changes the structure of the material and destroys its FR properties.
Can FR Clothing Be Dry Cleaned?
Dry cleaning using either perchloroethylene or a petroleum solvent is recommended when the clothing is contaminated with oil or grease.
The one exception is FR denim jeans, because the solvent will cause the dye to bleed and the denim will fade.
Hot or Cold Water?
Most garments have a manufacturer recommended washing temperature, but the FR properties of the material won't change if you don't follow these recommendations (provided you don't wash the clothing at very high temperatures, for the reason mentioned above). These instructions are meant, rather, to prevent the material from shrinking in the wash.
Can I Wash FR Garments with Other Clothing?
Some websites and manufacturers recommend washing your FR garments separate from other clothing, but there is absolutely no need to do this unless your FR garments are heavily soiled and might stain your other clothes.
You will, however, need to ensure that the detergent is suitable for FR fabrics.
Which Laundry Products Should I Avoid?
Since chlorine can produce outstanding results even on heavily soiled garments, it is a common ingredient in laundry detergents. You should, however, avoid using chlorine-based products to wash your flame-resistant clothing. Some treated fabrics lose their flame-resistant properties after fewer than 10 washes with detergents that contain chlorine, or after being washed with hard water and hydrogen peroxide.
Some well-established brands, like Westex, Indura, Ultrasoft, Nomex®, and Protera®, indicate that their materials will maintain their FR properties even after being subjected to chlorine. So when it comes to chlorine, stick with the manufacturer's recommendations. If you're not sure, use a detergent with another color-safe bleach alternative, like sodium perborate.
Regardless of material, liquid fabric softener should never be used when laundering FR clothing. While the softener does not destroy the flame-resistant properties of the material, it might coat the fiber and impair its performance. Even worse, some softeners can act as fuel for combustion.
If you can't live without a fabric softener, the best compromise might be adding a softener sheet in the dryer.
Starch should never be used on FR garments since it is a propellant and will initiate combustion.
Most soaps contain animal fats. These are flammable and will cover the material's fibers, masking its FR properties. As a generic precaution, avoid any and all soaps when laundering FR clothing.
Drying and Ironing
Heat is, by its nature, the arch nemesis for FR materials. Exposure to high temperatures changes the structure of the garment's fibers. This change provides protection during a fire, but it degrades the material and is irreversible.
Manufacturer recommendations vary, but most garments can be ironed at a low temperature setting.
Though most home dryers don't reach temperatures that will degrade FR materials, drying your protective garments for too long at high temperatures can lead to excessive shrinkage (more than 5%). Tumble dry on low for better results.
FR garments with a heavy stain can be pre-soaked and then treated with a stain removal product. Hot water can make some detergents more effective at removing soil and stains.
When all this fails, you should dry clean your FR garments.
Proper Laundering Is Easy but It's Not Optional
Preserving your garment's flame-resistant properties through several washes is simply a matter of avoiding a few factors (such as chlorine, fabric softener, or excessive heat) and following the manufacturer's instructions.
That's easy, but it's not optional. Improperly laundered protective clothing can compromise its flame-resistant properties, which makes it useless when you encounter a fire or an arc flash.
Wash your FR garments with care and they won't fail you when you need them most.