Five Tips for Cleaning Military Uniforms

how to clean military uniforms at home

How to Wash Military Uniforms

Because camouflage doesn’t clean itself. And, for reasons I don’t understand (and, for the record, don’t like), the ‘don’t touch my gear‘ rule seems to apply to everything but the dirty cammies. The piles of questionable-use gear (I swear there’s stuff that’s been in plastic wrap and unopened for years) and ammo cans and eighty tactical books I’m highly convinced are never even opened? Those need to stay right where they are. Don’t touch those. But those piles of cammies on top of the laundry bin? In the garage? Piling up near the washing machine? Honey, can you just run a load…?

And for a long time my answer was no. (Judge away.) I was a working woman myself and I didn’t see him running loads of my blouses or taking my heels to the cobbler, so it just sort of seemed fair. You do your laundry, I’ll do mine. And as every spouse ever knows, that really means: You do some of your laundry, I’ll do all of mine, all of the house stuff, all of the kids’, and part of yours.

how to clean military uniforms at home

This is my husband’s laundry bin. I’m not even sure what it is that’s hanging out of it, but all I know is it needs some serious de-funking. The room kind of does too, now.

And so eventually that meant cammies.

Now I should tell you. I come from a long line of military spouses. And for every store of greatness and bravery, I’ve heard eighty other stories about uniforms ruining prom dresses, evening gowns, wedding dresses, christening gowns, and every other important piece of fabric you can think of.  After a particularly awful laundry incident involving a yellow dress and a load of Army greens on hot, my grandfather wasn’t allowed to do his uniforms at home at all. Ever.

But I’ve been worn down by the piles of laundry and the general smell of sweat and dirt and gunpowder and Marine-ness and whatever else is built into those things, and so, for the overall sake of a happy, clean-ish home, I’ve given in. I’m cleaning uniforms.

And thanks to you, we now have five tips to pass on for how to do that well. I.e.: In such a way that the washing machine and the laundry both smell clean when they’re done. *claps hands for miraculous feats of cleanliness and military spouse genius*

Tip #1: Meet Vinegar, Your New Best Friend

“I wash all his cammies, skivvies, and socks in vinegar and it works great!,” says Mikka. So how do you use vinegar in your washing machine? While the uniforms are soaking, add a cup of white vinegar and let them soak for awhile. If you have a top-loader, you can just leave the top open for a half hour and let the vinegar do its magic. If you have a front-loader, your washing machine probably has an “extra soak” option. Using that, add the vinegar directly the basin and then wash as normal. Everything *should* come out smelling spiffy clean.

Tip #2: And Baking Soda

But since we all know they somehow issue uniforms pre-soaked in sweat and grime, sometimes you need a little heavy duty helping. Enter: Baking soda! Using your regular detergent, add a half-cup of baking soda directly to the basin of your washing machine. Baking soda is basically the miracle cleanser of 2014 in this house, so I’m not terribly surprised by this. I’m just shocked I didn’t think of it myself!

Pro Tip: Baking soda and a scrub brush is apparently the magical solution for cleaning covers. “Scrub brush and baking soda,” says Amy. “If that doesn’t work, then it’s time for a new cover!!

Tip #3: For Desperate Times, Try Desperate Measures (i.e., Ammonia)

Millinda knows what it’s like to deal with heavy sweat, heavy grime uniforms and she has found that ammonia gets the job done with nothing else will. “I wash everything he sweats in in hot water and add a cup of ammonia,” she says. “The current cammies don’t shrink and it gets out all the smells, PT gear and everything.” Well, color me happy.

Tip #4: Hot Water Wash

With load after load of extra-stinky uniforms putting your washing machine to its test, it’s a good idea to run a hot water wash after every particularly brutal military load. Not only does this help the washing machine keep itself clean on a regular basis, it’s also the best way to make sure the stank from the last load doesn’t get into the next. (Anyone who has ever washed a uniform that was worn straight for three weeks in the desert without being washed once can completely understand where I’m coming from here. If you haven’t done that yet, don’t worry. It’s only a matter of time. Just know – it’s exactly as bad as you think it is.

Tip #5: Monthly Upkeep

Maybe because we’ve been in crappy rentals with crappy washing machines that I blamed for all of our cammie stank problems, but I’ve done a really terrible job of actually maintaining our washing machine. End result: I’ve had guest room towels that smell vaguely like uniform, and not in a good “this smells of bravery and patriotism!” way. But more in a “oh gosh I’m so, so sorry, let me get you some new ones” way.

I was tsk tsk’ed for this recently when I complained to a more senior wife that I’m thinking of just hosing down all uniforms outside and insisting they go to a laundromat to get clean. “If you never clean the thing that does the cleaning,” she said, “how do you expect it to do its job at all?”

Touché, wise woman. Touché.

There are a lot of DIY ways to clean your machine, but I’m partial to the pre-packaged cleaner our washing machine manual recommends. I’m not sure what’s in it, I’m entirely sure I don’t want to know, and I’m also pleased to report it works like a charm. I now clean the washing machine every month – and it works so well with a little regular upkeep I haven’t had to use vinegar in a few weeks.

But today’s supposed to be the hottest day on record where we live in Florida, though, so my guess is that will be out the window tomorrow. But hey: At least now, when he comes home with the sweat-soaked, grime-caked, “what IS that smell?” military uniform laundry load, I can look at him and say “hey, no problem. I’ve got this.”

And for once, I’ll know I’m right.

About the Author

Raleigh Duttweiler
Raleigh Duttweiler is a writer and social media expert living just outside the gates of MacDill in sunny Saint Petersburg, Florida. A Marine Corps wife, she has navigated the stress of Active Duty moves, trainings, and deployments, and now that her family has transitioned to the Reserves, she's experiencing the "weekend warrior" side of military life. (NB: It's not quite as part-time as advertised.) When not writing about benefits and military families, Raleigh posts here about truly life-altering, important issues like What Not to Wear to a Military Ball (visible thongs), Military Halloween Costumes We Love to Hate (ones that generally resemble both military uniforms AND thongs), and how to pack awesome care packages. She is passionate about spouse employment, higher education, and helping families navigate the often-bumpy transition back into civilian life. Raleigh also manages the SpouseBUZZ and Military.com Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest pages, so be sure to say hi!
  • NavyBlue

    Wish I had these tips when the husband was an AME! Jet fuel, oil, grease, grime, sweat, and you name it went through our washer. Don’t miss those days. We bought all new uniforms after he cross rated to Corpsman.

  • USMCair

    I was hoping to find an easier solution for cleaning hydraulic fluid here. ;) Currently the best I’ve found is a 4 hour soak in OxyClean & hot water (I use the bathtub to spare our washer) followed by a normal wash and extra rinse.

    • A few caps full of Murphy Oil Soap in the wash will take hydraulic and hey fuel smell out of their uniforms :-)

    • Kate

      Biz works much better than Oxyclean, and washing soda is better than baking soda. Borax is fantastic for getting rid of smells, and also works well as a non-toxic flea killer if you have pets with a flea problem. Just toss it around upholstered or carpeted surfaces, leave it an hour or two or even over night, and the adult fleas will be dead when you vacuum it up. If you want to kill flea eggs also, mix 1 cup of table salt in with a box of Borax and toss it around.

  • Amy_Bushatz

    I’ve got a husband coming back soon from two straight months in the “field” down at Fort Polk. Before reading this my plan was: bonfire. Those toxic ACUs may even self combust. Now I shall make an attempt to clean them. After that I’m still going with the fire.

  • EarnestTBass

    LADIES LADIES LADIES! Some humor here, but it will save your washer. See in the Navy after working flight ops and working on catapult 4 we still needed to do our laundry too. We had no spouses to do our dirties But what I did was to put Tide in all pockets loaded all Sweat, hydraulic soaked, graphite grease, tobacco stains from rolling around the flight deck hooking up our jets prior to launch.( I hated those people who chewed after that) all clothing went into a big fishnet bag then dropped over board 120 feet below so the bag would be beat by the waves coming off the carrier, a 30 minute wash followed by a deep sink rinse and hung in the large dry sauna type rooms we had to dry. But salt water was the trick here. So if you don’t have a boat and don’t live near an ocean I guess your as they say S O L. LOL!

  • Jo

    I wash my cammies with Tide. The only thing it can’t get out is the pesky ink stains that seem to claim their spot on every possible blouse.