The Future of Military Waterproof Fabrics

With PFAS facing bans and restrictions, what are we in for when it comes to waterproof gear?

The Future of Military Waterproof Fabrics

In my other job, I interact a lot with the outdoor industry — in particular, where it intersects with clothing and equipment used by the military. An issue that has been looming for the past few years is what to do about polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS. Another term you will hear is “PFC” for perfluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds. 

If you haven’t heard of it, don’t feel bad. Most people associate the material with firefighting foam, which has been found in multiple watersheds around the country, if they’ve heard of it at all.

The thing that made PFAS so popular in the first place is that they are great for making fabrics water- and stain-resistant. Ever notice how water just beads up and rolls right off a jacket? That’s Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating, and it’s made from PFAS. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are thousands of PFAS chemicals that are widely used. Components of these long-lasting chemicals break down very slowly over time and may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals. What’s more, PFAS are found in water, air, fish and soil at locations across the nation and the globe. Consequently, industry is working to eliminate their use. Some governments are instituting bans on their use. In particular, California has passed a law banning the manufacture, distribution and sale of some fluorochemical-containing textiles starting in 2025.

The thing about California is that the market is so large, and other U.S. states often follow their lead on legislation, that many companies move toward California compliance. That one state drives entire industries and has already been joined by Maine, New York and Washington in seeking to eliminate PFAS use. Additionally, several countries in the European Union are proposing bans on the use of PFAS in many products.

However, even the California law has exceptions: for example, firefighting equipment. Since there are currently no PFAS alternatives for use with turnout gear, that category of products gets an exception until something can be developed. Although the law is quite extensive in defining what it considers clothing, there’s another exception that affects you and your customers: “Clothing items intended for regular wear or formal occasions does not include personal protective equipment or clothing items for exclusive use by the United States military.” Interestingly, military garments were some of the first to adopt PFAS for water repellency. The iconic field jacket used a coating called QuarPel, short for Quartermaster Repellant. 

The key to any modern outerwear is its Durable Water Repellent, which I mentioned earlier. It keeps moisture from building up on the surface of a garment. There are quite a few treatments available, and different manufacturers have their favorites, but they are usually based on flouropolymers. These are PFAS molecules that are applied to the surface and cured at high heat to make them adhere better and increase performance, aligning a fluorine atom at one end, which is highly hydrophobic or water shedding. Water moves away from the flourines, resulting in beading, which allows the water to roll off without wetting the actual fabric. 

DWR works best when it’s clean. That means following the garment’s laundry instructions by washing it and drying in a dryer to use its heat to help get the DWR-coated fibers to stand up. I’d also like to note that if you’re washing tactical or hunting clothing, avoid the use of detergents with optical brighteners, as they suppress the ultraviolet and violet region of colors in a fabric. They trick the eye into seeing a brighter shade and reflect more light.

What does this mean for you and your customers in the long run? For one thing, new coatings aren’t as effective. A walk in the rain for two hours or more in a Softshell jacket which previously left you dry and cozy inside will likely result in damp clothing underneath. Outdoor industry insiders also tell me that you’re going to lose the “durable” part of water repellency, meaning you’ll have to reproof your garment more often than the recharge by washing and drying you do now. Additionally, new coatings on the market are not oil-resistant like the PFAS-based ones. 

As for U.S. military garments, any change will come slowly. In discussions over the past couple of years with the domestic textile industry, which provides DoD and other agencies like the Department of Homeland Security with gear, there are no changes in sight, with more questions than answers. The military will likely continue to use the same materials it has until those are no longer offered due to legislative pressure or until newer, similar-performing materials are introduced by the industry. 

To be sure, the military knows about the issue and the possible disruptions to the supply chain. While they continue to monitor what industry is up to and the current state of the art, at least currently, the military isn’t asking for PFAS-free textiles. This means those same manufacturers will continue to offer commercial versions of the garments they make for the military, and customers who insist on performance will still have that option. Likewise, U.S. surplus clothing will remain a source of these higher-performing garments until the textile industry gets a breakthrough to match legacy function. 

On the international front, the changes in fabrics we are seeing come at the request of industry, which desires to change itself. There’s no word yet on how potential European legislation will affect their practices and in particular, their procurement of military and security clothing and equipment. However, on a final note, once EU and member nation legislation is in place, do not be surprised if the disposal of surplus material containing PFAS is banned, so keep your ears open. Otherwise, hope that we’ll get some great new fabrics for clothing and equipment out of this transition. 

Istock photo by breakermaximus
Istock photo by breakermaximus


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