January 19, 2024
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EDITOR'S NOTE: For those seeking an in-depth explanation of this entire situation, the Outdoor Minimalist is launching a comprehensive 10-part podcast series on March 4 called "Forever Chemicals," about what PFAS are, why they're no good, and what brands are doing to eliminate them. Podcaster Meg Carney speaks with scientists, brands, lawmakers and others about it all.
Fly anglers have long relied on breathable waterproof outerwear to keep them dry and comfortable in various weather conditions. These garments, often made with advanced materials from manufacturers like Gore and Toray, offer protection against cold rivers, rain, and wind while allowing moisture to escape, preventing you from feeling damp and clammy. But as the world anticipates an impending per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances ban in manufacturing, it’s crucial to understand how it’s become even more important to wash and care for these garments to prolong their lifespans and maintain their performance.
The Impending PFAS Ban
With the move to what’s called “C0” fabrics (meaning zero carbon and PFAS free), care and cleaning for your waterproof breathables is going to be all the more important, says Skwala CEO Kevin Sloan.
“You want to keep them clean,” Sloan said. “That’s true with all technical gear, whether we’re talking about jackets or breathable insulation pieces (or waders). They’re going to perform better if they are clean. If you have a bunch of Gink and fish slime and dirt on the face textile, your breathability is going to drop way off. And that goes for dirt on the inside as well.”
Since states like Maine and California (and many countries) are banning all PFAS in the coming months and years, waterproof breathable outerwear manufacturers like Skwala, Simms, Patagonia, Orvis, and Grundéns will effectively need to become PFAS-free. Because the durable water repellent (DWR) treatments currently in use by all manufacturers contain PFAS, off-the-shelf breathable waterproof outerwear performance will likely regress in the near future.
The ban is due to the growing body of evidence that these chemicals can be harmful to human health and the environment. PFAS can accumulate in the body over time and have been linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer, thyroid disease, and reproductive problems. They can also pollute waterways and harm wildlife. [To read more about this, see Chris Hunt’s article “The Ban on PFAS” in the Aug.-Sep. 2023 issue of Fly Fisherman.]
Once the ban takes effect, you may find that the factory-applied DWR doesn’t last as long, so you’ll need to reapply with PFAS-free water-repellent spray treatments to renew your existing clothing. Revivex, a popular DWR coating spray, has a PFAS-free DWR spray, and Nikwax, a similar product, will introduce PFAS-free Direct.Dry for industrial in-factory application in late 2024. Nikwax, which has never used PFAS, also offers an at-home waterproofing wash-in or spray-on product called TX.Direct for gear like waders and jackets. Before you can apply any of these products, the garment must be clean (products like Nikwax's Tech Wash and Revivex's Pro Cleaner can be used for pre-treatment cleaning).
“The whole thing about keeping them clean is really about performance,” Sloan added. “And it will also help the longevity.”
“As we move toward C0, we’re going to have less durability in our DWRs,” Sloan said. “People are going to need to get used to washing and reapplying DWR.”
Wader manufacturers often give specific instructions on how to clean and care for these technical garments. For example, Skwala, Simms, Orvis, and Patagonia all say (most of) their stockingfoot waders can be safely cleaned using a front-loading washing machine. Top-loading washing machines have an agitator that adds extra wear and may damage your waders. Use a delicate cold-water cycle, powder detergent, and don’t use bleach or fabric softener.
How often you wash depends on how hard you use the gear.
“If guys are just walking into a tailwater they’re not getting gunk and grime and scum in there,” said Sloan. “If you’re a driftboat guide and you’re grinding Fly Agra and Gink into your waders all the time, and using them to wipe your hands off, you need to wash them more. It really has to do with when they’re visibly dirty, or after many days of use, both the inside and outside need to be cleaned.”
Sloan says you can dry your waders in a low-heat machine tumble cycle. A dryer cycle helps activate DWR coatings. Always read the product’s care label first. Bootfoots must be handwashed and air-dried.
Dryers may be the riskiest machines because waders have taped seams, and the adhesives may not survive excessive heat.
Sloan says that for Skwala products, the dryer would need to get to about 300 degrees before the seam tape would start to come off, which is much hotter than most home dryers.
Also, if a dryer has any little snags it can grab, rip, and ruin waders. You likely know how “safe” your dryer is by how it treats your clothes.
If you have any concerns about your dryer or the washing machine, you can wash your waders in lukewarm water in a bathtub with a technical wash such as Nikwax Tech Wash, or use a gentle, non-scented powder detergent. Exterior first, rinse, drain water, then refill the tub and repeat for the interior. Rinsing is important, as they need every speck of soap off of them before they can be treated with a DWR.
Hang them inside out first to completely dry, then repeat for the exterior.
Fly Fisherman Art Director Dennis Pastucha uses the cleaning/drying process to check for pinhole leaks.
“Once my clean waders are fully dry, I flip them inside out to expose the interior, and use a spray bottle with rubbing alcohol to find pin holes,” he said. When you apply a fine mist of rubbing alcohol (isopropyl) onto your waders, dark spots will appear where any pinhole leaks are present. He uses Aquaseal FD thinned out with alcohol to fix pinholes.
Pastucha allows the Aquaseal a full day to cure before moving to the next step.
“Once the Aquaseal has fully cured, I flip them inside out again so the exterior is out. I hold them up to wet the exterior in the shower, and then towel dry the exterior so they’re damp, but not dripping. I then apply Revivex DWR starting at the bottom of the wader and use a hair dryer on high heat 6 to 10 inches away from the wader to activate the DWR, making sure I’m never touching the wader with the hair dryer. It’s time-consuming but ensures no damage from a washer or dryer. I’ve had great results and this method doesn’t allow any high heat to actually penetrate the taped seams.”
Mold and mildew issues can also arise when anglers neglect waders and jackets, which can cause tape to release its adhesive properties.
“When mold gets into the backer material on the inside, it’ll make your waders potentially fail,” Sloan said. “That’s from contamination. If you had washed that gear more, you wouldn’t have those failures.”
And if you fish in salt water, you should rinse them after every outing.
Ultimately, simply keeping your waders clean is the best way to keep them functional for as long as possible.
“The biggest mistake in cleaning waders, in my opinion, is people don’t let the interior fully dry,” Pastucha added. “I can’t tell you how many friends have washed and retreated their waders but didn’t allow the interior to fully dry only to find mold. The interior needs to be bone dry. Sometimes I’ll even put cedar bags in the stocking feet to store them.”
And though you’re dealing with expensive technical fabrics, anglers should never fear properly washing them.
“When we talk to people about it, you almost get a reaction like, ‘Wow, I can wash that?’” Sloan said. “And our answer is, ‘Please do.’ They’re actually doing damage to it by not washing it. The product will last longer and perform better if it is washed.”
- It’s not necessary to wash after every outing. As Sloan stated, it really depends on how dirty your usage makes the face fabric. The less you wash your clothing, the less often you will need to reapply the water-repellent coating. Wash your clothing only when it is visibly dirty or smelly.
- Use a mild detergent, as harsh detergents can strip away the water-repellent coating. Look for a detergent that is labeled as “delicate” or “wool.” As mentioned, Nikwax and Revivex both have wash-in versions of their DWR products.
- If you use a dryer, use the lowest heat setting.
- Spot-clean stains immediately. If you get a stain on your clothing, spot-clean it immediately with a mild detergent and water. Do not wait until the stain has dried, as this will make it harder to remove.
- Reapply the water-repellent coating with each washing.
- Don’t store your breathable outerwear in direct sunlight or near heat sources. Hang your gear in a cool, dry place.
- Be careful not to drag your clothing on sharp or rough surfaces like concrete, as this can damage the water-repellent coating and create pinhole leaks. Use an outdoor mat such as the Orvis Wader Mudroom or the Simms Taco Bag to protect the wader’s stockingfeet when you put the waders on or take them off.
- If you are storing your clothing for an extended period of time, pack it in a garment bag or other protective covering.
Joshua Bergan is Fly Fisherman’s digital editor.