What do laundry labels mean?

A series of laundry label symbols relating to washing, drying, bleaching, ironing and professional cleaning.

Have you ever inspected the laundry label on an item of clothing and come away feeling clueless? You’re not the only one! Most people only look at garment care labels once in a while, meaning that when they see all those symbols after a long break, it’s hard to remember what they mean.

Below, we explore everything you need to know about garment care labels, including: 

  • The meanings and appearances of laundry care symbols 
  • Other information included on the laundry label 
  • Why garment care labels are important for the condition and longevity of your clothes 

 Read on to learn more!

What do the symbols on laundry tags mean?

Typically, garment care label symbols are set out in five standard categories to make it easier for you to understand how to look after your clothes. These five categories are: 

  • Washing
  • Bleaching
  • Drying
  • Ironing
  • Dry cleaning

In each case, slight variations to the printed symbol give you important information, such as what maximum temperature to wash the item at, or whether to use steam when ironing the garment. Let’s look at each of the categories in turn.

Washing symbols

Almost all the washing symbols will be based on an image that looks like a bowl of water. The only one that doesn’t look like this is the do not wring symbol, which resembles a twisted garment with a cross over it.

Machine washable – this is the basic symbol of a bowl of water. In most cases, you’ll get one of the following symbols instead to give you more information.

Wash cold – a bowl of water with 30°C printed inside it, or a single dot.

Wash warm – a bowl of water with 40°C printed inside it, or two dots.

Wash hot – a bowl of water with 60°C printed inside it, or four dots.

These are the three most common temperature symbols, although it is possible to have others. For instance, you might have a garment that specifies it shouldn’t be washed at over 50°C, which could also be represented with three dots inside the washing bowl.

Next, there are a few symbols that designate how you should wash the item.

Use a synthetics cycle – a bowl of water with a single horizontal line underneath it.

Use a gentle or wool wash cycle – a bowl of water with two horizontal lines underneath it.

Hand wash – a bowl of water with an image of a hand inside. This symbol means you should either wash the item by hand, or you could use your machine's hand wash cycle if it has one.

Do not wash – a bowl of water with a cross over it.

Bleaching symbols

All bleaching symbols are based on the shape of an equilateral triangle. There aren’t as many bleaching symbols as there are washing symbols, but it’s important to pay attention to them as using the wrong type of bleach – or using bleach when it’s not recommended – can drastically alter the condition of your garments.

Bleaching allowed – a single, empty triangle with the point facing upwards.

Use non-chlorine bleach – a triangle with two parallel diagonal lines inside.

Do not bleach – a triangle with a cross over it.

The do not bleach symbol is fairly self-explanatory, but it’s always a good idea to check the meaning of the symbol before acting, just in case you’ve remembered incorrectly. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

Drying symbols

Washing and bleaching aren’t the only things that can potentially cause damage to your garments – drying them incorrectly can as well. Fortunately, your garments come with symbols that help you to understand the best method to dry them after washing.

Drying symbols all come in the shape of a square with various details inside. First, let’s take a look at the tumble-drying symbols.

Tumble dry allowed (on any heat) – a square with a circle inside it, touching each edge of the square. It can be easier to remember if you see the image as a picture of a tumble dryer, with the circle representing the door.

Tumble dry on low heat – a square with a circle inside it, and a single dot at the centre of the circle.

Tumble dry on medium heat – a square with a circle inside it, and two dots in the middle of the circle.

Tumble dry on high heat – a square with a circle inside it, and three dots in the middle of the circle.

Permanent press or synthetics cycle – a square with a circle inside it, and a single horizontal line underneath the square.

Delicate or gentle cycle – a square with a circle inside it, and two horizontal lines underneath the square.

Do not tumble dry – a square with a circle inside it, with a cross over the whole symbol.

You might also receive instructions on how to dry the garment without the tumble dryer. These include:

Drip dry – a square with three vertical lines inside.

Dry flat – a square with a single horizontal line inside. Many people find drying flat easiest with a clothes airer that has a flat portion, as this allows air to flow under and around the garment, rather than laying the garment flat on a solid surface.

Hang to dry – a square with a curved line inside going from one upper corner to the other. This looks a bit like a washing line suspended from the top of the square.

Ironing symbols

Ironing symbols are usually easy to spot because they are shaped like an iron. Like washing and drying symbols, ironing symbols mostly relate to allowable temperatures, as well as a few other helpful tidbits.

Iron cool (max 110°C) – an iron with a single dot inside.

Iron medium (max 150°C) – an iron with two dots inside.

Iron hot (max 200°C) – an iron with three dots inside.

If there are no dots within the image of the iron, that means you can iron at any temperature you like.

Do not iron – an iron with a cross over it.

Steaming not allowed – an iron with two lines jetting out from the base. These lines have a cross over them, meaning you shouldn't use the steam function on that garment.

Dry cleaning symbols

If your garment needs the care of a professional, or you just want to have the item cleaned professionally for a special occasion, the dry cleaner in question will also need some instructions. As they tend to use different processes than you would at home, there is some additional information for dry cleaners included on the garment care label.

Dry clean only – an empty circle.

Suitable for dry cleaning with any solvent – a circle with a capital 'A' inside.

Suitable for dry cleaning with any solvent except for Trichloroethylene – a circle with a capital 'P' inside.

Suitable for dry cleaning with a petroleum solvent only – a circle with a capital 'F' inside.

Do not dry clean – a circle with a cross over it.

This last symbol can sometimes be confused with the do not tumble dry symbol. Remember, if there’s a square around the circle, it’s about tumble drying. If not, it’s about dry cleaning.

How to read garment care label instructions

If all those symbols weren’t enough information for you, there’s also plenty of written information on the garment care label as well. This information is usually easier to understand as you don’t have to translate from symbols.

Typically, the information will begin with what you might need if you were looking at the item in a shop, prior to buying. This includes the size, brand and country of manufacture. Often there are several sizes listed to cover the sizing protocols of various countries – for example, a size 12 in the UK might be known as a different size in the US or Europe. Having the size labelled inside the garment helps if the wrong hanger has been used, but it’s also good for if you need to know the size of an item you bought long ago – for instance, for organising your wardrobe according to size. With sizing information, you may also see a safety warning such as ‘KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE’.

Next, you can expect a list of the constituent materials such as cotton, polyester and elastane, usually accompanied by a percentage figure to let you know the proportions of each material. This can be helpful if your skin is sensitive to certain materials.

Alongside material information, there may also be written care instructions. These may be tips represented elsewhere in symbols – e.g. cool iron – or instructions the symbols don’t cover, such as wash with similar colours. These instructions and the materials list are often repeated in several languages for non-English speakers – usually common European languages such as French, Spanish, Dutch, German, Portuguese and Italian, although this can vary depending on the manufacturer.

Why are garment care labels important?

If this is the first time you’ve learned about garment care labels in any depth, you may be wondering whether they’re worth it. It can be tempting to simply put all of your clothes in the washing machine together and have done with it. However, this isn’t the best plan.

As we’ve covered, garment care labels offer a wealth of information on how to look after your clothes, particularly during the laundry process. This is important because going about things in the wrong way can have a disastrous effect. It’s not only the misuse of bleach that can impact your clothing’s condition and longevity, but washing, drying and ironing, too.

For example, exposing certain materials such as wool to high temperatures (whether in the washing machine, the tumble dryer or under the iron) can cause the fibres to weaken, leading to garments shrinking or becoming misshapen. This can also happen if you dry them in the wrong way without a tumble dryer, as hanging some materials can cause the fabric to stretch with the weight of the water.

At the end of the day, no one’s forcing you to pay attention to garment care labels every time you do the laundry, but it’s a good way to take care of your clothing to ensure you get to enjoy it for years to come. Plus, you’ll save money on not having to replace your wardrobe so often!

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