Every item of clothing you buy comes with a useful label that explains how you need to care for it. And while they are certainly sometimes a bit annoying (especially if they start sticking out at odd angles at odd times), you shouldn’t cut them off before you have committed to memory the requirements they’ve come with.
And while most of us know what the degrees on a label stand for, and can recognize an iron when we see one: what on earth do the rest of the laundry symbols mean?
Here are 59 care symbols explained – hopefully they can help to keep you from shrinking your new favourite sweater, or damaging a never-before-worn shirt.
What Do Laundry Symbols Mean?
Laundry symbols (or care symbols), are a manufacturer’s suggestions for the best way to wash, dry, iron and dry clean clothing.
While you may be able to care for your items in other ways just as well, you should always adhere to them at least for the first wash. Note that any damage that occurs to your items if you care for them in a way that deviates from the manufacturer’s recommendations will be on your own head.
There are 5 basic categories of washing label symbols: washing, bleaching, ironing, dry cleaning and drying. There are also different variations of the same symbol – for example, US and UK care symbols may vary.
The tub tells you how to wash an item.
The triangle tells you if you can bleach an item and how.
The square tells you how to dry an item.
The iron tells you how to iron an item.
The circle tells you everything about dry cleaning an item.
What Do Washing Symbols Mean?
The tub is arguably the most important care symbol on a clothing label, and it tells you how your clothes should be washed, using which programme and at what temperature.
European washing symbols have the temperature written inside the tub in degrees Celsius, while American washing symbols come with dots inside the tub. General Washing Symbols
Do not wash A crossed-out tub means that you shouldn’t wash the item in question. Clothes with this symbol shouldn’t be washed in a washing machine, nor should they be washed by hand. They most likely need to be dry cleaned: in which case you’ll spot the appropriate symbol on the label too.
Hand wash A hand in a tub means that an item can only be washed by hand. Most modern washing machines have programmes that emulate hand washing, so you will most likely be able to wash your garment that way. To be on the safe side, try washing it yourself by hand first, and see how the material behaves.
Do not wring This symbol means an item shouldn’t be wrung, so make sure you don’t try to remove any of the excess water, as you will likely damage the fabric. Instead, look for further instructions on how best to dry this particular item.
Permanent press cycle A tub with a line underneath means your garment can be washed with a shorter cycle and a short or a low-speed spin cycle. You’ll usually see it on items made of sturdier fabrics (like denim). This symbol will most often also feature a washing temperature inside the tub.
Gentle or delicates cycle A tub with two lines underneath means your item needs to be washed using a gentle cycle. You’ll see it on pieces made of wool or lace, and most bras and panties. Avoid a spin cycle if you can, and use a gentle laundry detergent as well. This symbol may also feature a temperature indicator inside the tub.
Washing Temperatures: Europe
Wash at 30°C This care symbol means your clothing can be washed in a washing machine, at a low temperature that isn’t higher than 30°C. You can spot it on most of your colourful items.
Wash at 40°C or below This item can be washed at 40°C, or at a lower temperature.
Wash at 50°C or below This care symbol means your item can withstand temperatures of up to 50°C.
Wash at 60°C or below This symbol tells you that an item can be washed at 60°C. While you may at times run cycles for these garments at lower temperatures, you should still sometimes crank up the heat to 60 degrees, as suggested.
Wash at 70°C or below This symbol means an item can be washed at 70°C or lower.
Wash at 80°C or below These items will withstand temperatures of up to 80°C.
Wash at 90°C or below This care symbol signals that your item can be washed using hot cycles. My advice is to heed this recommendation, and wash it at the recommended temperatures. You’ll most often see this symbol on towels and tea towels, which need to be washed at high temperatures to kill all the bacteria that may cling to them.
Wash at 95°C or below These items can be washed at the highest possible temperatures.
Washing Temperatures: America
Wash at 30°C or below In the US, the tub washing symbol comes with dots to indicate the temperature clothes should be washed at. One dot means the item should be washed at 30°C or lower.
Gentle wash at 30°C or below A tub with one dot that also has a line underneath indicates that the garment should be washed using a gentle cycle, at 30°C or lower.
Wash at 40°C or below A tub with two dots means that your item should be washed at no higher than 40°C.
Wash at 50°C or below If a tub has three dots, the item in question should be washed at temperatures of up to 50°C.
Wash at 60°C or below Four dots in a tub indicate that an item can be washed at up to 60°C or below.
Wash at 70°C or below Five dots in a tub mean that you can wash an item at temperatures up to 70°C or lower.
Wash at 80°C or below A tub with six dots indicates that an item can be washed at 80°C or at a lower temperature.
Wash at 90°C or below Seven dots in a tub are the highest washing temperature indicator in the US, and they signal that an item can be washed at 90°C.
What Do Bleaching Symbols Mean?
The triangle laundry symbol stands for bleaching, and it usually follows the tub on clothing labels. There are two ways to bleach clothing: with oxygen or with chlorine, and both of these methods have a symbol of their own.
Can be bleached The triangle indicates that any type of bleach can be used on the garment.
Do not bleach A crossed-out triangle means that no bleach should be used on the item. Instead, you should use a good colour detergent that will preserve the longevity and vibrancy of your clothing.
The triangle may be white or black: either way, the meaning remains the same: don’t use bleach unless you want to ruin your item, or do some tie dye.
Use non-chlorine bleach Two diagonal lines in a triangle mean that you can use non-chlorine bleach on your item.
Use chlorine bleach The letters CL inside a triangle mean that an item can be whitened with the use of chlorine bleach.
What Do Ironing Symbols Mean?
Ironing laundry symbols are rather straightforward: they tell you at what temperature an item can be ironed (or if it shouldn’t be ironed at all).
Safe to iron The general iron laundry symbol means that the item can be ironed.
Do not iron A crossed-out iron indicates that an item should not be ironed at all, as the fabric might get damaged.
Do not steam-iron An iron that has the steaming elements underneath crossed out means that you can iron the item in question, but that you shouldn’t use the steam function.
Iron at 110°C An iron symbol with a single dot inside indicated that you can gently iron your item at a maximum of 110°C.
Iron at 150°C Two dots in an iron mean that you can use temperatures of up to 150°C on the garment in question.
Iron at 200°C Three dots in an iron symbolise that the use of the highest ironing temperatures of up to 200°C is allowed.
What Do Dry Cleaning Symbols Mean?
The circle is a laundry care symbol that stands for dry cleaning. Pay special attention to this symbol on your coats and jackets, as well as on any leather or silk items.
Dry clean An empty circle is used as a general symbol for dry cleaning.
Do not dry clean A crossed-out circle means that you should not dry clean the garment in question.
Dry clean using any solvent An A inside a circle means that you can dry clean your item with all dry cleaning solvents.
Dry clean using perchloroethylene (PCE) A P inside a circle indicates that you can take your item to be dry cleaned with PCE or a petroleum-based solvent. In America, this symbol means that any solvent can be used except trichloroethylene.
Dry clean using perchloroethylene (PCE) – mild process If the P in the circle also happens to be underlined, it indicates that only a mild process should be used by your dry cleaner.
Dry clean using hydrocarbons An F inside a circle means that your item can only be dry cleaned by using hydrocarbons. In America, it indicates that only petroleum-based solvents can be used.
Dry clean using hydrocarbons – mild process If the F in a circle also has a line underneath, it indicates that a mild process should be used.
Professional wet cleaning A W inside a circle means that the item requires professional wet cleaning.
Gentle professional wet cleaning A W in a circle with a line underneath means the garment requires gentle professional wet cleaning.
Extra gentle professional wet cleaning A circle with a W that also has two lines underneath means that item requires extra-gentle professional wet cleaning.
Cleaning method not allowed If any dry cleaning symbol is crossed out, it means that this method should not be used. For example, you may come across a crossed-out W in a circle.
What Do Drying Symbols Mean?
Drying symbols come in the shape of a square, and can tell you whether you can dry your item in a tumble dryer, or how it should be dried on a line.
General Drying Symbols
Tumble dry A square with a circle in the middle means that your item can be safely tumble dried.
Tumble dry on low heat A square with a circle and a dot in the middle indicates that you can tumble dry your item on a low heat.
Tumble dry on medium heat A square with a circle and two dots in the middle indicates that your item can be tumble dried on a medium heat.
Tumble dry on high heat A square with a circle and three dots in the middle means that you can tumble dry this item at a high heat.
Tumble dry with no heat A square with a dark circle in the middle indicates that no heat or air should be used when tumble drying this item.
Tumble dry on a permanent press cycle A circle in the middle of a square with one line underneath indicates that you should use a permanent press cycle to tumble dry your garment.
Tumble dry on a delicate cycle A circle in the middle of a square that has two lines underneath means that you should only tumble dry your item on a delicate cycle.
Do not tumble dry A square in a circle that has been crossed out means that the item should not be tumble dried. Make sure to adhere to this piece of advice, lest you risk shrinking your clothes.
Air dry A square indicates that the item in question should be air dried.
Line dry A vertical line in the middle of a square indicates that your item should be dried on a line. It should be damp when you hang it, and not dripping wet. You may also dry this item in the sun.
Drip dry Two vertical lines in the middle of a square mean the item should be dried on a line, but that this item should not be wrung out beforehand, and should still be dripping. You can also dry this item in the sun.
Dry flat A horizontal line in the middle of a square indicates that your item should be laid flat to dry. You should also press (not wring) any excess water out first. You can dry this item in the sun as well.
Dry flat while still wet Two horizontal lines in the middle of a square mean that you need to dry your item flat, but that you should not wring or press any excess water out first.
Line dry in the shade A vertical line in the middle of a square with a line in the upper left corner means the item needs to be line dried in the shade. The item should be damp, not wet. Don’t expose this item to direct sunlight, as the colours might fade.
Drip dry in the shade Two vertical lines in the middle of a square with a line in the upper left corner mean that the item should be wet when hung in the shade to dry. Don’t expose this item to direct sunlight.
Dry flat in the shade A horizontal line in the middle of a square with a line in the upper left corner indicates you should lay your item flat to dry in the shade, and press out any water first. Don’t expose this item to direct sunlight.
Dry flat while wet in the shade Two horizontal lines in the middle of a square with a line in the upper left corner mean that you should lay this item flat in the shade, while still wet. Don’t expose this item to direct sunlight.
History of Laundry Symbols
Laundry symbols are essentially a global lingua franca for clothing and textile care. They have been around for just over 50 years, and can still slightly vary from country to country. A shirt you buy in America or Japan won’t bear the exact same symbols as one you have bought in the UK – but you will still be able to understand them, thanks to the global standardisation of care symbols.
Care symbols were first introduced in 1963 by GINTEX, demanded by the recent widespread use of synthetic fibres in clothing manufacturing, which also demanded extra and varied care. The invention of more advanced washing machines and tumble driers also spurred the necessity for a unified, international symbol system.
The original GINTEX symbols were later adopted by ISO, aiming to help customers around the world, from different cultural backgrounds, understand the care information that comes with their items.
While you may take them for granted today, they play a very important role in clothing manufacturing, care and distribution.
How Many Laundry Symbols are There?
There is no straightforward answer to this question. While this guide lists 59 laundry symbols, some may still have been omitted.
There are however some care symbols in very common use, and these are the ones you have already seen countless times on your own items.
What If the Care Symbols Don’t Work?
If you have washed an item according to the manufacturer’s instructions, but your clothing has been damaged regardless, you should return it to the store.
The cleaning method listed on the label is a care warranty, and you will be entitled to a refund or an exchange.
The manufacturer may have inadvertently attached the wrong label to the offending item, or something may have gone wrong in the manufacturing process: either way, the responsibility is with the manufacturer.
Wrapping It Up
Now that you understand most, if not all of the care symbols you may come across on your clothing, you can make sure your items last you a long time, and that you get the best possible cost per wear out of each.