Whether you’re on laundry duty on base or you’ve taken an Army Combat Uniform back home for recreational wear, this important piece of apparel requires special care that you wouldn’t extend to your T-shirts, gym shorts, or hoodies. To be sure, ACUs are built for intense situations—it may seem that if they can handle the battlefield, they can handle the laundromat. In order to maintain the ACU’s lab-tested color palette, its chemical treatment, and the integrity of its polyester-cotton blend, you must launder these uniforms with care. Don’t worry—the instructions for how to clean an Army Combat Uniform are simple, reasonable, and easy to carry out.
When it comes to laundering your uniform, you don’t need to bring the heat of battle into your washing machine. Hot or warm water in conjunction with detergent is likely to fade the colors of your uniform. While a little fading might be fine for your old weekend sweatshirts, compromising the colors of a camouflage pattern compromises the uniform itself. Use a gentle detergent with no bleach or softener additives. Washing your uniform in cold water isn’t just what’s best for the uniform, it’s what’s best for the environment. Warm water requires expending gas or electric energy you don’t need to use, and warm water sheds microfibers from laundry. These microscopic strands of plastic are too small for many water-reclamation plants to successfully filter, leaving them to gradually get into our water supply. Washing in cold water prevents this.
As with washing the ACU, you want to avoid unnecessary heat when drying it. If you need to use your dryer, use a low-heat tumble-dry setting, but ideally, allow enough time to hang-dry the uniform. Never wring it out. While hanging your ACU out on the clothesline seems like a pleasantly green alternative to the dryer, it’s not the best choice in this case—that sustained exposure to direct sunlight and ultraviolet light can fade the uniform’s colors much as whiteners and warm water.
The rigorous instructions for how to clean an Army Combat Uniform—no warm water, no heavy dryer cycles—may send some folks straight to the dry cleaners to take it off their hands. While dry cleaning has its place for our finest apparel, such as dress uniforms, it’s the wrong thing to do for an ACU. The standard ACU uniform is treated with permethrin, an insecticide that keeps bugs away in combat, as well as with flame retardants. The chemicals used in dry cleaning will degrade these treatments or strip them altogether, taking away important and life-saving features of this critical uniform.