Laundry symbols first appeared on clothes in Europe around the 1950’s (1). The USA hopped on the helpful trend in the 1970’s and since then, care labels on clothing have been the norm.
We’ll be using the International Organization for Standardization laundry symbols, which is the most common. Each symbol acts as guidance on how to properly care for your garment.
Laundry symbols are typically broken down into five categories: washing, bleaching, ironing, drying and dry cleaning. We’ll go through all five categories and explain what different washing symbols mean.
First up — washing your clothes. These symbols will help you know what method of washing to use (hand or machine) and at which temperature.
Do Not Wash
This symbol means do not wash the clothes at home. When they get dirty, take them to a dry cleaners.
Hand Wash Only
The image with the hand means to handwash. Do not exceed 40°C or about 100°F. In fact, we recommend lukewarm water.
The tubs with the numbers represent the recommended wash temperature for that garment. For example, 30°, 40°, 60° and 95°C. We recommend organizing your laundry loads based on the recommended temperatures.
If there are no lines underneath the tub, you may wash the garment in any cycle.
Something To Note
You may also find dots instead of temperature numbers. One dot means cool; two dots mean warm; three dots mean hot.
Low Spin Cycle
If there is one line underneath the tub as well as a number, wash at the specified temperature. However, use a low spin cycle, filling the drum only ⅔ full.
Hand Wash Cycle (Wool Cycle)
If there are two lines underneath the tub, as well as a number, wash at the specified temperature. However, use a hand-wash or wool cycle. Keep the drum ⅓ full and use low spin.
Bleaching is a useful process for stain removal and whitening clothes. But not every garment can handle it. Check out what the different bleaching symbols mean.
Do Not Bleach
A triangle with a cross through it means don’t use any kind of bleach.
An empty triangle means it’s okay to bleach this garment with any type of bleach.
Non-Chlorine Bleach Only
The triangle with diagonal lines means that you must only use non-chlorine bleach, such as oxygen bleach, for this garment.
There are two categories of drying symbols: tumble drying and air drying.
The blank circle in a box means you can dry the item as you like, at your preferred temperature.
The black circle in a box means to dry without heat. Many tumble dryers have an air-dry cycle which would be great here.
One dot means to use low heat which is typically for delicate and synthetic items.
Two dots mean to use a medium heat cycle.
Three dots mean you can use high heat. This is usually for strong fabrics like cotton and linen.
Do Not Tumble Dry
The symbol with the cross through it means do not tumble dry this item. If that’s the case, you’ll likely see air drying advice.
The empty box means you can air dry this item how you like, whether that’s flat, on the line or drip drying.
Do Not Dry
If you find this X symbol, take it to the dry cleaners and let them do the work.
Do Not Wring
The cross through the twisted garment means don’t twist wring the item. Instead, put it through a hand wringer or roll it up in a towel to squeeze out excess moisture.
A horizontal line means to dry the garment flat. This reduces stretching.
Dry in the Shade
Diagonal lines in the corner means to dry the garment in the shade, away from direct light.
Hang to Dry
The curved line means to hang it up on a clothesline or clothes rack to dry.
More than one line means to let it drip dry. If these lines are vertical, hang them to dry. If they’re horizontal, lay them flat to dry. Don’t squeeze out any excess water before hanging it to dry.
Iron at Any Temperature
A plain ironing symbol means you can iron the garment at any temperature, with or without steam.
Do not Iron
A cross through a plain ironing symbol means don’t iron it.
The iron with steam coming out means the garment can be steam ironed.
Do Not Steam
The steam iron with a cross through means iron without steam.
One dot means to use low heat.
Two dots mean use medium heat.
Three dots means you may use high heat to iron the garment.
Dry Cleaning Symbols
Don’t Take It to the Dry Cleaners
If your garment has a circle with a cross through it, do not take it to the dry cleaners. It is not suitable for their chemical process. Wash it at home instead.
Suitable for the Dry Cleaners
If you have a plain circle, it means that it’s suitable for the dry cleaning. The other symbols will help the dry cleaners know what process to use. We’ll break it down for you anyway.
The P, A and F in a circle instructs the dry cleaners on which solvent to use.
One line underneath a circle means gentle cleaning; two lines mean very gentle.
Lines on the Side
You may also find symbols with a line on either side of the circle. A line on the right means to use a short cycle. A line on the right means to use low heat.
If you use an at-home dry cleaning kit, don’t worry about these symbols. These kits do not use the same harsh chemicals. Simply follow the package instructions on these kits.
How to Use Laundry Symbols
Always check the care label when you get a new garment. It’s important to know how to wash, dry and iron a garment so that you don’t ruin the item and waste money.
Garment labels also sometimes offer other advice, such as turning the garment inside out or washing with similar colors.
If, for some reason, you can’t adhere to the labels, do your best to stay as close as possible. For example, some washing machines don’t have a 30° cycle. Ours, in fact, only has 20, 40, 60 and 90°. When a care label says wash in 30°, we wash in 20° to be safe.
Follow the Rules
We know, rules are boring. But they’re there for a reason. When you learn how to read clothing labels, you’ll be thankful. Your clothes will stay in better condition for much longer!
If you do happen to find a symbol that’s not on our list, simply look it up online as it might be unique to that brand.
Beth McCallum is a freelance writer & book blogger with a degree in creative writing, journalism, and English literature.
Beth firmly believes that a tidy house is a tidy mind. She is always looking for new ways to sustainably clean and tidy her house, that's kind on the environment but effective in the house, too!