Congratulations! You just purchased your brand-new body armor or bulletproof vest. Now, you may find yourself thinking that you’re set for life, but that’s actually not the case. This essential piece of equipment has a limited lifespan. In essence, there’s an expiration date by which your life-saving vest components MUST be replaced to ensure product integrity and optimal safety. If you’ve got a high likelihood that bullets or other threats are going to be headed your way, you’re going to want to be prepared. After all, this is your life that’s on the line. If anything is worth investing in, it’s your protection.
So the question remains, what is that perfect time to consider swapping out your old personal protective equipment for a newer version (even if you’ve never actually worn it)? Stick with us as we break down everything you need to know about why body armor can expire and when your gear must be replaced.
Body Armor’s Best-By Date
You’ve likely seen “best by” or “sell by” dates placed discreetly on food and other products to alert shoppers of a looming date with their trash can. These labels aid in successfully warning consumers of either diminishing quality or when a product may no longer be safe for human consumption. However, while a general sniff test might do the trick in most cases with food, this same rule of thumb cannot be applied to your gear.
When it comes to body armor, we often forget to check on the shelf-life. If it looks good, then it must be safe, right? Wrong. According to the National Institute of Justice, most body armor in the U.S. has a standard five-year life span when properly cared for. That timeframe doesn’t take into account frequency of use, upkeep and any damage that has occurred. Think of it this way, if you use your body armor daily, then the vest may wear out more quickly. In contrast, if your vest remains in storage, the length of its protective capability may be extended. This is not to say that you should try to push the safety guidelines and limits set by the manufacturers or other organizations.
What is wise? More on that in the next section...
The Top 4 Reasons Body Armor Expires
There are many reasons why body armor and protective vests have an expiration date. Despite these varying causes, there is one underlying factor that remains constant, no matter the company, material or guarantee: Safety.
#1 General Wear and Tear
From Kevlar and PE to steel and ceramics, bulletproof vests and protective armor can be made from many materials. The catch? They all wear differently.
Factors that can affect the quality and integrity of your vest are both personal and environmental. Let’s take a look at some of them below now:
- Fit: Whether your vest is too tight or too loose, both of these issues can cause additional wear and tear to your gear. Like a seatbelt, your safety accessory should be snug, but not restrictive.
- Friction: If your armor is constantly rubbing on other surfaces or catching on your clothing, you could start to see new areas of weakness appear. Think of it as the driver’s seat of your vehicle. Over time, you may notice pilling, fraying or discoloration in your seat. That’s because of all of the motion that the surface is taking on overtime.
- Frequency: As mentioned above, the more you use it, the more you lose it. Heavy use for long hours on a daily basis can reduce the overall life of your vest, especially if you frequent areas with extreme weather or temperature differences.
But what about the unseen?
#2 The Invisible Factor Behind Intended Service Life
This may come as a surprise, but oftentimes the biggest threat to preserving the lifespan of your gear is one that goes unseen. Bulletproof vests and body armor are made from ballistic fibers that can degrade over time as compounds within the unit naturally break down. This can be likened to a bungee cord. Before each jump, it’s critical to check the strength of the cord and the same precautionary measures should be applied to your vest.
Although rain, humidity and freezing temperatures can also play a role in wearing down your gear, you’ll likely be unaffected if the water-resistant material remains intact and is properly cared for after. Prolonged exposure to the elements under compromised conditions can mean the replacement clock is ticking down faster. Luckily, we’ve got some ideas on the best types of body armor to buy.
Checking over your gear regularly can seem like a simple solution, but it’s really the ultimate way to ensure you’re prepared and protected. Potential weaknesses may show up as creases, snags, rips or burns … and if you see them early, you can do something about them.
#3 Internal Damage and Prevention
Although your body armor may look like it’s in great shape on the outside, it’s just as important that you ensure the inside maintains full integrity. Ballistic vests are designed to distribute the force of a traumatic incident throughout the whole vest using dense, layered materials and tightly-woven, twisted fibers. Each layer acts as a stopping force, causing penetrating objects to slow down and deform upon impact until the threat has stopped. It’s almost like throwing a lump of clay down on a table. The clay spreads out like a mushroom until the energy of the projectile has been reduced or absorbed.
You’ll want to be sure your armor doesn’t have creases, cracks or bends because each of these changes can weaken the internal components and compromise its integrity. This exposes the wearer to a greater risk of injury, and it’s also why knowing the appropriate body armor to wear, its capabilities, limitations and the mechanisms of injury is essential for emergency responders and average Joes alike.
#4 Proper Cleaning and Storage Practices
Proper maintenance and storage of your body armor will not only safeguard your investment, but will also help protect your life. When cared for regularly, both the exterior carrier vest and the internal ballistic plates will last much longer than a personal protection system that’s been neglected. Cleaning your armor can help extend its life and, as a bonus, keep those dreaded odors away.
When you’re not wearing your vest, there’s a specific method to cleaning and several things you need to watch out for. Here’s what you need to know:
- Carrier Component Cleaning: To clean the vest, you should first separate the ballistic inserts, panels and plates from the carrier. Be sure to remove any detachable straps, velcro fasteners and secure any remaining components. These pieces may be cleaned by wiping them gently with a damp cloth. We recommend that you hand wash your carriers with cold water, but they may also be machine washed with a gentle detergent on a delicate cycle. Always check the manufacturer’s care instructions and never dry clean your carriers.
Once washed, lay your vest flat to dry or use the lowest temperature setting to tumble dry (again, only if the manufacturer says it is okay to do so). It’s best to wash your plate carrier once a week, so you may want to consider purchasing an extra so you have one on hand while you hand wash and air dry the other.
- Armor and Plate Cleaning: The devil is in the details! When you’re ready to clean the interior panels, lay them on a flat surface and carefully wipe them with a damp sponge or cloth. Never submerge your plates or run them underwater. Remember, prolonged exposure to moisture could degrade the plates, shorten their lifespan or cause them to become less effective. A gentle detergent may also be used for stubborn stains, if necessary. Never use chemical cleaners (like bleach), deodorizing sprays (like Febreze), washing machines, dryers or irons to care for your ballistic panels. The last thing you want to do is affect the integrity of your plates. You can then let them air dry indoors on your flat surface of choice until they’re ready to be correctly oriented and placed back in the carrier.
- Practicing Proper Storage: If you want your armor to last, it is important to store it properly. Improper storage also can degrade performance. If you store your body armor on a hanger, have it bunched up, rolled or placed on an unstable edge, rather than on a flat surface, this can also reduce the armor's effectiveness. The vest should lie flat and should be kept away from direct sunlight, dirt, and moisture. Never store your vest in a vehicle for an extended period of time and avoid placing other items on top.
Luckily, the NIJ has set requirements that all compliant armor models include care instructions, which means that all of Safe Life Defense’s products come with them.
Replacing Body Armor
If your vest begins to show signs of wear and tear, is fitting differently or is near the five-year mark, then it may be time to replace it. Although body armor doesn’t immediately go bad on its expiration date, vests past their intended shelf-life are not tested or rated for protection. This means that an expired vest has a higher likelihood of being penetrated by bullets or blades. An additional risk to consider here is that the internal components could cause harm to the wearer if it develops cracks or tears. At the end of the day, your safety is dependent upon your body armor being properly fitted and maintained.
If your armor is expired and you can’t afford something new, keep wearing it! Something is better than nothing and it could still help save your life. We want our customers to be as protected as possible, which is why we can offer additional peace of mind through our Safe Life Defense Guarantees.
Your Protection, Our Promise
At Safe Life, we’re in it for the greater good: Real people, real promises and real protection. In the unfortunate event that you are shot while wearing Safe Life Armor, our Incident Guarantee offers you the option of a FREE vest replacement when you provide us with an official police report.
Our #1 goal is to keep you safe and we trust our products to do so. When you buy our brand, you can rest easy knowing we’ve got your best interests at heart. This is why we back all of our gear to protect your investment.
Our #1 goal is to keep you safe and we trust our products to do so. When you buy our brand, you can rest easy knowing we’ve got your best interests at heart. This is why we back all of our gear to protect your investment
If it’s time to replace your gear, check out our newest arrivals here. In the meantime, be sure to take care of your equipment for the best results and optimal safety.