Understanding Laundry Symbols and Clothing Care Labels

If you’ve ever looked closely at the tags on your clothes, you’ve probably noticed strange little markings. What are they? Egyptian hieroglyphics? Plus, why are those symbols there, and what do they mean?

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Laundry symbols make up a standardized code that will tell you how to wash your garments without damaging them. Clothing manufacturers are required by law to print these characters.

At one time, those companies always provided such tag directions in writing; however, on July 1, 1997, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) permitted clothing brands to start using these symbols. At first they appeared alongside traditional instructions. Since the start of 1999, though, manufacturers have been allowed to supply symbols alone.

Laundry symbols fall into five main categories, which are described below. Keep in mind they can differ slightly depending on the type of garment and the brand. Also, this discussion pertains to American laundry symbols. Their international counterparts may vary somewhat.


laundry symbols - machine wash

A washing symbol slightly resembles a washing machine that’s full of water. You’ll recognize it when you see it.

Do you see one dot in the middle of the symbol? One dot means you need to use your machine’s cool or cold temperature setting. Two dots indicate the need for warm water, and three dots tell you to make the water hot.

Furthermore, if this character has one line beneath it, you ought to choose a permanent press cycle. Two lines, meanwhile, tell you to rely on a gentle or delicate cycle. If there are no lines underneath, you can opt for your machine’s regular or normal cycle.

What about if there are neither dots nor lines? In that case, you’ll see either a little drawing of a hand inside the water or an X through the entire symbol. The hand tells you to wash the item by hand, and the X informs you that you shouldn’t wash this piece at all.


laundry symbols dry

The drying category is the most complicated, but it all begins with a square. A circle inside the square will describe the level of heat you should select. A black circle means no heat, and a circle with one dot inside it is the symbol for low heat. Two dots convey the need for medium heat, and three dots designate high heat. And, if you see an empty white circle, you can use any heat setting you’d like.

Once again, one line under the square specifies a permanent press cycle. Two lines tell you to rely on a gentle/delicate cycle, while no line indicates you can choose the normal cycle.
A square with an empty circle and an X through it, however, is the sign for “do not tumble dry.”

There are some squares with no circle at all. One symbol you might find on occasion is a square with a small curved line inside, near the top. It means “line dry”; in that instance, find a clothesline. “Drip dry” is indicated by a square with three parallel lines in it. One horizontal line in the middle is the “dry flat” symbol. Two diagonal lines in the upper left corner ask that you dry the item in the shade. A square with one line inside it and nothing else stipulates “dry flat.”


laundry symbols - bleach

Triangles offer bleaching directions. If yours is blank, feel free to use any type of bleach. If the triangle has parallel lines running through it, the corresponding garment needs a color-safe bleach, one that is lacking chlorine. If you see a triangle with an X over it, don’t use any bleach.


laundry symbols - ironing

The ironing label looks much like an iron. Sticking to the pattern, one dot inside is the mark for low heat. Two dots are for medium heat, and three dots are for high heat.

If you see an iron with two lines emerging from the bottom, and those lines have an X through them, you shouldn’t iron the item with steam.

An iron pictograph with an X through it means you shouldn’t iron that item of clothing at all.

Dry Cleaning

laundry symbols - dry cleaning

If you see a circle with no markings, you can take the item to a dry cleaner. A circle with an X through it, on the other hand, indicates a garment that should not be dry cleaned.

As a bonus tip, be aware of the popular materials that require extra care. They include wool, cashmere, silk, velvet, muslin, suede, chiffon and anything that’s embroidered. Your best bet is to trust the professionals to clean such fabrics.

Once you’re accustomed to laundry symbols, you may get in the habit of putting your dirty clothes into piles according to their washing directions. You might, for example, put all of the items that require high or low heat together. That practice should save you plenty of time over the long haul.

Finally, if you go to a website with a chart that briefly explains all of these laundry symbols, consider printing it out and taping it to the wall above your washing machine. If you use a laundromat, you might stick a copy inside your wallet or bag. After a while, you won’t need to refer to it anymore.

Laundry Symbols

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