The One Product You Need to Wash and Protect a Down Jacket

With one essential product and a few easy steps, your jacket will perform better

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Washing a down jacket

TripSavvy / Nathan Allen

Washing a down jacket can be scary. The fabric is generally lightweight and feels like it’d rip easily. And when saturated, the down plumes can clump together in ways that seem highly unnatural. Not to mention, most puffy jackets are expensive, so caring for it correctly can also prolong its life.

"If the outer fabric of your jacket gets dirty, it’s going to suck water into the jacket, which causes it to lose its loft," says Heidi Allen, the vice president of marketing at Nikwax, a leading brand in outdoor gear detergents and after-market waterproofing. "And if the down gets dirty on the inside, it’s also going to lose its loft. So by having a dirty jacket, you’re going to have a jacket that’s not insulating as well as it should.”

One key factor in properly washing your down jacket is to use a detergent that's specifically made for it. Nikwax's Down Wash Direct cleaner is our top pick—it goes into your washing machine just like any detergent but specifically cleans hydrophobic and regular down clothing and sleeping bags. I've personally used Nikwax's Down Wash Direct for decades—that's my washer, dryer, and jacket in the photo—and love that it also boosts your jacket's (or bag's) water-resistant qualities.

Once you have the correct cleanser, then you'll need to follow the proper steps for washing. To help with that, we picked Allen’s brain to give you a step-by-step guide on safely and successfully washing your puffer.

Nikwax Down Wash Direct

Nikwax Down Wash Direct


Step-by-Step Guide to Washing Your Down Jacket

Follow these steps, and your jacket will be fresh and clean — plus, properly caring for it will help you extend its life.

Step One: Check the Care Label

First things first, read the care instructions attached to your down jacket. If your down jacket doesn’t have care instructions, consult the brand’s website. Make sure you follow the instructions. But, generally, Allen says, machine washing your down jacket is best. “Most down jackets, especially made by outdoor brands, are fine to be washed in a washing machine,” Allen says, noting some designer down jackets might not be machine-washable. 

“You just need to double-check because there might be some that are dry-clean only,” Allen explains, noting that even so, dry cleaning is not great for down. “The harsh chemicals can be really bad for the feathers,” Allen points out. “But you don’t generally want to go against the manufacturer’s instructions. That would void any warranty you might have on the jacket.”

Step Two: Check Your Pockets!

The most common mistake people make throughout the process, Allen claims, is failing to remove everything from your pockets. Anything sharp in your pockets would be really bad. Allen says lip balm is a common culprit for ruining a down jacket. “If anything gets washed into the down, it can cause all sorts of problems,” she points out. “That’s the most common mistake, perhaps.”

Step Three: Use a Front-Loading Washing Machine or Handwash

Once you’ve determined the best way to wash your down jacket and removed everything from the pockets, Allen advises using a front-loading washing machine only. We’ll spare you the excruciating details, but essentially agitators use a twisting central column that rubs against clothes to break apart stains. Impellers utilize a lower profile cone or disc to rub clothes against each other to clean stains. Agitators are generally found in older top-loading machines, but newer top-loading models utilize the impeller instead of the agitator because they use more water and energy. Just ensure your machine uses impellers because agitators can be hard on down jackets. “Front loaders are always best because they roll them around enough to make sure they get thoroughly wet and thoroughly cleaned,” Allen explains.

There may be a lot of contamination on the surface of your jacket even if it’s not visible.

But if you’re like me, your washing machine is a top-loader with an agitator. In that case, Allen says handwashing in a sink or bathtub is an option. Or, if you really want to wash it in your washing machine, Allen recommends allowing your washing machine to totally fill with water, adding a down-specific cleaner, and then physically taking your hand and ensuring the down jacket gets thoroughly saturated before starting the wash cycle. “But if you do have an agitator, I do not recommend it. Because it is really hard on down jackets and can cause them to rip and tear and generally be unhappy,” Allen says.

Step Four: Use a Down-Specific Cleaner and Gentle Cycle

Next, use a down-specific cleaner like Nikwax’s Down Wash Direct. “Down is a very delicate material,” Allen points out. “It can last for a super long time if properly cared for. But if you use really harsh household detergents, they can dry out the feathers and plumes prematurely, causing them to dry out, and they can get a lot of breakages and lose their loft.” That will make the jacket lose its loft, which means it will lose its insulation and, therefore, warmth. In other words, “Don’t use your Billy Mays Oxy-Clean or whatever,” Allen says.

In addition to protecting the down feathers, a down-specific wash will help maintain the water-repellent coating. “Most down jackets come with the DWR—durable water repellency—on the fabric. And that helps protect the down inside,” Allen explains.

After putting the down-specific detergent where it needs to be according to your washing machine, run a gentle cycle. Allen advises doing a couple of extra spin cycles at the end to get as much water out of the jacket as possible. “That really helps prepare it for drying,” Allen says.

Step Five: Don't Freak Out

When you remove the down jacket from the washing machine, it’s gonna be scary. 

“When you take your jacket out of the wash, it’s going to be a little terrifying,” Allen says. “Because it’s going to look like a drowned rat, but it fluffs back up in the drier. When it comes to washing down jackets, drying is extremely important.”

Just don’t panic.

Step Six: Drying

You want to do many cycles on low heat when drying a down jacket. “That high heat can melt the outer layers of the jacket,” Allen points out. She recommends at least three drying cycles. This step is crucial because leaving moisture in the jacket can cause mildew and problems. Allen recommends taking the jacket out between each dryer cycle to see if there are any big clumps in the down. If there are, massage them out with your hand to disperse those clumps.

Some people use tennis balls or wool dryer balls to help break up the clumps. Some brands don’t recommend doing tennis or wool dryer balls, so checking with the brand’s instructions first is key. But Allen says she’s had good results with the wool drier balls.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How often should I wash my down jacket?

    You should wash your jacket if it looks dirty. And in general, regardless of the presence of dirt, Allen recommends washing at least twice a year. “[There may be] a lot of contamination on the surface of your jacket even if it’s not visible, and that’s pulling water into the surface of your fabric, [which] means it’s a good time to clean and freshen up your jacket,” Allen says.

  • How should I store my down jacket?

    Always store your jacket by hanging it. Compressing or stuffing the jacket away can compress the down, reducing its effectiveness.

Why Trust TripSavvy

Nathan Allen is TripSavvy’s Outdoor Gear Editor. He’s washed down jackets most of his life and primarily uses Nikwax’s Down Wash Direct. The main source of this article, Heidi Allen, has cleaned over 100 down jackets and sleeping bags over the years. She’s also participated in an event where she cleaned more than 50 down sleeping bags of thru-hikers at the end of the Pacific Crest Trail. “There were some unique smells, but I got them clean,” she says of the experience. There’s no known family relationship between Nathan and Heidi. 

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