Check the Label: How to Interpret Care Symbols on Clothes

a green utility room with paneled walls, shelving and drying clothes hanging up

When it comes to doing laundry, the symbols printed on clothing labels can often seem like ancient hieroglyphs. These aren’t just random icons, however; rather, they’re care symbols that can help you keep your clothes looking newer for longer—provided that you understand them.

Aside from keeping your clothes in good condition, understanding and following these care symbols on clothes will help ensure the best washing results. Read on below for a primer on clothing care symbols, so you can take better care of your garments. 

A Brief History of Today’s Laundry Symbols

Laundry care symbols aren’t a new invention. Their origins date back to the late 1950s in Europe, about the same time when washing machines were becoming mainstream.

The rise of synthetic fibers in the 1930s and 1940s, such as nylon and polyester, introduced new complexities in fabric care. These materials often required different care methods compared to traditional natural fibers like cotton or wool. This created a need for a simple, standardized way to communicate care instructions to consumers.

Around the same time, it became more common for consumers to take care of their own laundry at home, thanks to the growing availability of home washing machines. Previously, much of this work had been done by professional launderers who were knowledgeable about fabric care.

an ironing board with clothes in a washing basket

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) introduced the Care Labeling Rule in 1971, which made it mandatory for clothing manufacturers to include care instructions on their products. These rules were intended to prevent consumers from damaging their clothes due to a lack of information about proper care methods.

Today, these symbols can be found on nearly every garment and while there may be slight variations between regions, most laundry icons are universal.

Care Symbols on Clothes

There are several main organizations that have been involved in creating and standardizing care symbols for garments, with GINETEX being the major force in the standardization of international clothing labels. 

Decoding Washing Instruction Symbols: Wash Like a Pro

The first step in mastering care symbols is understanding what each symbol represents on the laundry chart. For washing clothes, look for the icon resembling a deep basin or wash tub.

Washing Methods

tub care symbols for clothes
  • Machine Wash: If the clothing label has an icon of a wash tub without any other symbols, it indicates that the garment is safe to be washed in a washing machine. This symbol applies to all front-load or top load washing machines.
  • Tub with Underline: An underline under the tub means that the garment needs a gentler than usual washing cycle. The more the number of underlines, the gentler the washing cycle needed.
  • Hand Wash: A wash tub with a hand on top or inside means that the garment should be gently washed by hand, typically using mild detergent and cold water.
  • Tub with an X: If there is a tub with a cross through it, it means that the item should not be washed in a washing machine, and will likely need to be dry cleaned.
  • Tub with Wavy Line: This symbol indicates that the garment can be washed using the permanent press setting, which has a slower spin speed to prevent wrinkles.
  • Do Not Wash: A crossed-out bucket or wash tub symbol signifies that the item should not be washed at all, and alternative cleaning methods should be used.

Washing Cycles

  • Normal Cycle. This symbol is represented by a wash tub with no lines and indicates that the garment can be washed using the regular or normal cycle on your washing machine.
  • Permanent Press Cycle. When you see a single line beneath the washtub symbol, it means you should use the permanent-press cycle. It has lower agitation speeds to minimize wrinkling, ideal for clothes made from synthetic fibers.
  • Delicate/Gentle Cycle. Two lines beneath the washtub symbol signify the delicate or gentle cycle that uses shorter wash times, gentle agitation, and reduced spinning to prevent damage to delicate items.

Washing Temperatures

tub symbol with numbers inside

Some clothes are better washed with cold water, while some can be washed with warm or hot water. To indicate this, manufacturers include dots or numbers inside the wash tub icon.

The dots are used to denote the maximum water temperatures in Fahrenheit: one dot means up to 85°F, two dots mean up to 105°F, and three dots mean up to 120°F. Meanwhile, numbers denote water temperatures in Celsius. The numbers you will often see are 30, 40, and 60°C.

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Navigating Drying Symbols: Safely Drying Your Clothes

tumble dry care symbols

Once you’ve washed your clothes, the next step is to dry them. The dryer icon is a square with a circle inside it, which usually refers to a tumble dryer (which uses heat to dry clothes).

Below are the icons you will see on clothing care labels regarding drying methods and drying temperatures.

Drying Methods

  • Tumble Drying Allowed: This symbol is represented by a circle inside a square and indicates that the garment can be safely dried in a tumble dryer.
  • Do Not Tumble Dry: The crossed-out dryer symbol advises against using a dryer for a particular item, as it may cause damage or shrinkage. For clothes with this kind of label, it’s best to opt for air drying methods.
drying symbols on a clothes label
  • Hang to Dry: The hang-to-dry symbol is a square with a curved line connecting the top two corners, making it look a bit like a square envelope. When you see this symbol, it means that the garment should be hung up to air dry, away from direct sunlight, to preserve its shape and texture.
  • Drip Dry: This symbol is square with 3 vertical lines in the middle. 
  • Dry Flat: This symbol is a square with a horizontal line in the middle. If your garment has this symbol, it should be dried horizontally on a flat surface, such as a drying rack, to prevent stretching or distortion while allowing it to air dry.
  • Do Not Wring: The symbol features a hand squeezing water out of fabric with a crossover. It reminds you not to twist or wring the garment to avoid stretching or misshaping the fabric.

Drying Temperatures

  • Any Heat. The dryer icon without any dots inside means that any drying temperature can be used for the garment, including high heat. Adjust your dryer settings as desired.
  • High Heat. A dryer symbol with three dots inside the square indicates that the garment can withstand higher drying temperatures.
  • Medium Heat. Two dots inside the dryer symbol suggest that the garment should be dried at a medium temperature to avoid overheating.
  • Low Heat. One dot inside the square symbol requires the use of the dryer’s lowest heat setting, which is gentler on fabrics and reduces the risk of shrinkage or damage.
  • No Heat/Air. The dryer symbol with a darkened or filled circle signifies that the garment should be dried without heat. Opt for air drying methods if the care label has this symbol.

Drying Cycles

Like the washing symbols, a dryer icon without any lines indicates that the clothes can be dried with the “normal” cycle of your dryer. One line beneath the dryer symbol is for permanent press, and two lines mean you should use the delicate or gentle drying cycle.

Deciphering Bleaching Symbols

bleaching clothes symbols

Bleach can be useful for removing stains on clothes or for making white clothes brighter. However, not all fabrics can be bleached. Pay attention to the triangle symbol on your clothes’ care labels to know if you can use bleach on it.

A plain triangle means you can use any type of bleach, including chlorine bleach. If the triangle has two diagonal lines, it means that you can only use non-chlorine or oxygen bleach. Finally, a triangle with an X on it means you cannot bleach the garment at all.

Interpreting Ironing and Dry Cleaning Symbols

Some clothes can be ironed, while some cannot. In addition, some clothes are better dry-cleaned than washed or are dry cleaning only. Check the ironing symbol (a simplified drawing of an iron) and the dry cleaning symbol (a circle) to help you care for your clothes better.

ironing symbol on clothes labels

The ironing symbol follows the dot method mentioned previously: one dot for low, two dots for medium, and three dots for high temperature.

If the iron symbol has an X on it, the garment shouldn’t be ironed. Meanwhile, an iron with two diagonal lines crossed out below it means you shouldn’t use steam when ironing.

dry cleaning symbols on clothes labels

Meanwhile, for dry cleaning, an empty circle means that any solvent can be used for the garment. If there are letters inside the circle (usually P or F), this means that only certain chemicals can be used.

Finally, if the circle is crossed out, this indicates that the garment should not be dry cleaned at all.

a dark green utility room with washing machine and tumble dryer.

Even if you don’t run a professional laundry shop, knowing the different clothing labels and laundry symbols and their meanings can help you maintain the quality of your clothes and linens.

This is especially useful for keeping expensive designer garments in pristine condition. With this guide, you can confidently do your laundry without the fear of ruining your favorite outfits.

Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning that at no additional cost to you, I will receive a very small commission if you click through and make a purchase. These links help to pay the editorial costs of writing a blog. For more information, please read my full affiliate disclosure here.

I also use Artificial Intelligence Image generators to create some of my images. These are to show you examples of my ideas and inspiration when I cannot produce the real images myself.

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