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How to read laundry symbols

Ever wonder what those funny symbols on care labels mean? The washtub, the triangle, that little box with a circle inside? Get your decoder rings ready! This overview gives you the key to decipher what the manufacturer is trying to say. Now you’ll always know just how to wash, dry, and press your clothes. Never be vexed by the hieroglyphs on a care tag again!

how to read laundry symbols

The rules of care symbols vary by country

Care symbols on textile labels are governed by clear rules. Yet the rules in various parts of the world are different. (And they have changed over time.) Garment makers in Australia write their instructions in plain English – Canadians use English and French. Pictograms are required in Europe – they’re voluntary in the U.S.

The use of simple laundry symbols to convey basic information about how to care for your textiles makes life easier in a polyglot world. Though regional variants differ slightly, the symbols across systems are similar enough that you should be able to orient yourself most of the time.

We’ll have a look at the international standard – ISO Standard 3758:2005(E) – that is used in Europe (by Sartor too). Wherever the ASTM symbol set that’s used in North America differs significantly, we’ll make a note.

The 5 elements of laundry care

It’s not hard to pick out the iron in the lineup of pictograms below, but what is the triangle supposed to mean? And does the washtub mean handwash only or is machine washing okay?

The first rule of thumb is that there are five elements, in this order: washing, bleaching, drying, ironing, professional cleaning. Sometimes the symbols are not especially intuitive (any idea why bleach is a triangle?) but at least their order makes sense.

WASHING

BLEACHING

DRYING

IRONING

PROF. 
CLEANING

It’s also easy to decipher what’s meant when a symbol is crossed out. 
It’s simply a warning NOT to do something.

DO NOT WASH

DO NOT BLEACH

DO NOT TUMBLE DRY

DO NOT IRON

DO NOT DRY CLEAN

care label with laundry symbols
Here we have standard pictograms, but in the wrong order. You can see that this item requires gentle handling.

You won’t run into a label where everything is crossed-out very often, except maybe on soft toys or household items.

Each symbol states the maximum acceptable care – in other words, gentler handling is always welcome. If the label says wash warm (60°C), of course you can wash it in cool water, but not in hot. Likewise, just because bleaching is allowed does not mean that you have to do it.

Washing symbols on care labels

The washtub symbols give a range of information about home laundering, from maximum temperature to required handling. The temperature is given in degrees Celsius (in North America by a series of dots from one to six, where six is hottest). The degree of gentleness is indicated by underlining below the tub: A double underline indicates delicate handling, a single line permanent press, and without an underline is normal wash. The more lines the more careful you should be.

If hand washing is called for, assume lukewarm water and gentle handling.

do not wash symbol, washing symbol

Do not wash. This means you cannot wash the item, not even by hand, and certainly not in the machine. The reason may be delicate material, an unstable dye, or garment details that would be damaged by contact with water.

hand wash symbol, washing symbol

Hand wash. Water should be lukewarm (roughly 30°C). Use a delicate washing solution. Mix the solution in the water before adding the item you are washing. Agitate it in the water very gently, without scrubbing, and do not wring it. Do not soak for long. (The symbol used in North America has a solid hand.)

30 degrees Celsius laundry care symbol, washing symbol

Delicate wash cool (30°C). Select a suitable program for delicate items and use the appropriate washing solution or detergent. Do not spin dry. Do not fill the machine to more than one third of its capacity. You’ll encounter this symbol on wool washables.

30 degrees Celsius laundry care

Permanent press cool (30°C). Select a permanent-press cycle and do not fill the machine entirely. Do not spin dry or else select a low RPM with a shorter run. This symbol often appears on items made of rayon, thin cotton, acrylic, and sometimes polyester and polyamide.

30 degrees Celsius laundry care symbol, washing symbol

Delicate wash lukewarm (40°C). Select a suitable program for delicate items and use the appropriate washing solution or detergent. Do not spin dry. Do not fill the machine to more than one third of its capacity. You’ll encounter this symbol on wool washables.

40 degrees Celsius laundry care symbol, washing symbol

Wash cool (30°C). Wash on a regular cycle – used for brights in cotton, polyester, and blends. 

40 degrees Celsius laundry care symbol, washing symbol

Permanent press lukewarm (40°C). Select a permanent-press cycle and do not fill the machine entirely. Do not spin dry or else select a low RPM with a shorter run. This symbol often appears on items made of rayon, fine cotton, acrylic, and sometimes polyester and polyamide.

40 degrees Celsius laundry care symbol, washing symbol

Wash lukewarm (40°C). Wash on a regular cycle – used for brights in cotton, polyester, and blends.

60 degrees Celsius laundry care symbol, warm water wash symbol, washing symbol

Wash warm (60°C). Use a regular cycle for laundry that can handle somewhat higher temperatures. You’ll see this on bedsheets, towels, light-colored clothing made of natural materials, etc.

60 degrees Celsius laundry care symbol, warm water wash symbol, washing symbol

Permanent press warm (60°C). Select a permanent-press cycle and do not load the machine more than two-thirds full. Do not spin dry or else select a low RPM with a shorter run. This symbol often appears on items that can withstand somewhat higher temperatures but have a tendency to wrinkle.

70 degrees Celsius laundry care symbol, hot water wash symbol, washing symbol

Wash hot (70°C). Common only for cotton and linen. This temperature consumes less energy than the highest setting. Not all machines have this program.

95 degrees Celsius laundry care symbol, hot water wash symbol,

Wash hot (95°C). Common for light-colored cottons and linens. The machine may be loaded to capacity and the spin cycle set to max.

Other water temperature symbols on care labels

Sometimes the temperature is expressed in dots rather than numbers, especially in places where the use of the metric system is not well-established (we’re looking at you, USA). The chart below shows the temperature “dots” used in North American washing symbols.

200°F (95°C)

water temperature laundry symbol American

160°F (70°C)

water temperature laundry symbol American

140°F (60°C)

water temperature laundry symbol American

120°F (50°C)

water temperature laundry symbol American

105°F (40°C)

water temperature laundry symbol American

85°F (30°C)

water temperature laundry symbol American

Bleaching symbols on care labels

The bleaching symbol tells you what sort of bleach may be used. Domestic bleaches come in two types: Peroxide and chlorine.

Peroxide bleaches usually contain the active ingredient hydrogen peroxide or sodium percarbonate. They are fairly gentle and their number includes all sorts of gels and stain removers used to pre-treat laundry before washing. Sometimes they are labeled “active oxygen.” Some common household examples are Vanish, OxiClean, and others.

Chlorine bleach (containing sodium hypochlorite) is what people generally think of as laundry bleach. It is far more aggressive than peroxide bleach – removing not just stains, but all of the color in a garment. A typical example is a product like Clorox, which is used to whiten clothes. Chlorine bleach comes in handy for craft projects (spray it around a stencil on a colored t-shirt to make a pattern, for example). The product label will always note the presence of sodium hypochlorite on the contents list and among the hazardous material warnings. Never use chlorine bleach on wool, silk, and polyamide – it causes irreversible damage to these materials.

do not bleach symbol

Do not bleach. Neither peroxide nor chlorine bleach may be used. (If you’re in North America, the symbol is a solid triangle crossed out.)

bleach when needed symbol

Bleach when needed. Either peroxide or chlorine bleach may be used as needed.

only non-chlorine bleach when needed symbol

Only non-chlorine bleach when needed. Do not use chlorine bleach.

Drying symbols on care labels

You most often see the drying symbol in its tumble dry variant – a circle in a square – which tells you that you are free to toss the item into the dryer. Crossed out it means that the item cannot be machine dried.

do not tumble dry symbol

Do not tumble dry.

tumble dry low symbol

Tumble dry low. (Cool air.)

tumble dry medium symbol

Tumble dry medium. Maximum temperature 80 °C. You can fill the dryer to capacity.

Beyond the world of tumble drying, the humble square can also be made to convey a range of other drying options. This is one area where the symbols differ between North America and pretty much the whole rest of the world. Both alternatives, European symbols and American, are shown below.

USA/Canada

Europe

generic dry symbol

Dry. This is the generic symbol for drying. No concrete method is stated.

line dry symbol
line dry symbol

Line dry. Hang to dry on a line. The item should be just damp when hung, not dripping wet. May be dried in the sun.

drip dry symbol
drip dry symbol

Drip dry. Hang to dry on a line. May be dried in the sun. Do not wring dry – hang dripping wet. This method is mostly used for large items like blankets and sheets to avoid wrinkling from wringing.

dry flat symbol

Dry flat. Lay flat to dry. Press out excess water first. May be dried in the sun.

dry flat symbol

Dry flat while wet. Lay flat to dry. May be dried in the sun. Do not wring prior to laying out. Applies for delicate textiles that could be damaged by wringing or hanging. (There is no equivalent ASTM symbol.)

line dry symbol
line dry symbol

Line dry in the shade. Hang to dry on a line out of direct sunlight. The item should be just damp when hung, not dripping wet. Direct sunlight could cause fading.

drip dry symbol
drip dry symbol

Drip dry in the shade. Hang to dry on a line out of direct sunlight. Do not wring dry – hang dripping wet.

dry flat symbol
dry flat symbol

Dry flat in the shade. Lay flat to dry out of direct sunlight. Press out excess water first.

dry flat symbol

Dry flat while wet in the shade. Lay flat to dry out of direct sunlight. Do not wring prior to laying out. (There is no equivalent ASTM symbol.)

Ironing symbols on care labels

The ironing symbols are the most intuitive of the lot. The iron pictogram can be enhanced with one to three dots, indicating the maximum heat, as well as symbols depicting the use of steam.

do not iron symbol

Do not iron. Ironing this item can cause irreversible damage.

ironing symbol

Iron low. The temperature should not exceed 230°F (110°C) – the equivalent of the acrylic, nylon, or acetate setting. For items that require low-temperature ironing it’s a good idea to press from the back or through a cloth to avoid leaving shiny patches. Dry iron.

ironing symbol

Iron medium. The temperature should not exceed 300°F (150°) – the equivalent of the silk, wool, rayon, or polyester setting. Iron through a damp cloth without exerting extra pressure. Dry or steam iron.

 ironing symbol

Iron high. The temperature should not exceed 390°F (200°C) – the equivalent of the cotton or linen setting. Iron the item while damp or spray with water before pressing. Delicate garments should be ironed from the back or through a cloth. Dry or steam iron.

Dry cleaning symbols on care labels

Garments that should be dry cleaned are labeled with (admittedly) cryptic pictograms that may confuse the layperson but that any dry cleaner will understand. The symbols in this, the fifth, group consist of a circle with or without a letter inside that tells what sort of cleaning method should be used. An empty circle crossed out means that the item should not be dry cleaned at all. These symbols also let you know if you should use stain removers containing solvents such as benzine.

wet cleaning symbol

Professional wet cleaning.

dry cleaning symbol

Professional dry cleaning in hydrocarbons. This process uses special, solvent-based solutions that are flammable but are gentler than perchloroethylene. Do not use domestic solvent-based stain removers. (In North America this symbol means: Petroleum solvent only.)

laundry symbol p

Professional dry cleaning in tetrachloroethylene and hydrocarbons. This process uses special solvent-based solutions and/or perchloroethylene. Domestic solvent-based stain removers may be used on these items, but always test on a less visible area of the garment. (In North America: Any solvent except trichloroethylene.)

wet cleaning symbol

No professional wet cleaning.

wet cleaning symbol

Professional wet cleaning – very mild process. Professional laundering in water for very delicate textiles.

wet cleaning symbol

Professional wet cleaning – mild process. Professional laundering in water for delicate textiles.

dry cleaning symbol

Professional dry cleaning in hydrocarbons – mild process 

dry cleaning symbol p

Professional dry cleaning in tetrachloroethylene and hydrocarbons – mild process

do not dry clean symbol

Do not dry clean. And do not use any solvent-based stain removers. 

Other laundry symbols on care labels

The ISO standard symbols above have one slight drawback: They are registered trademarks and their use is subject to a licensing fee. The rights for their use belong to the international organization GINETEX, which has 18 member countries with national committees each overseeing use of the care symbols in their territory. The ISO standard was first published in 1991 and updated and renewed in 2005 and 2012. If you have textiles that date from before this period or come from parts of the world that use another labelling system (Australia, the U.S., Canada, China, etc.) you may run into different symbols not covered here.

While writing this post, I dug through my closet for some care labels to use as examples. I found all sorts of labels, some with one set of symbols, some with two or three, and others with none at all. With this article in hand, though, you should be able to decipher anything you come up against.

Japanese laundry symbols, American laundry symbols
American and Japanese laundry symbols.

Other non-ISO symbols you may encounter

machine wash symbol

Machine wash at a given temperature. The number of dots (1 to 6) corresponds to the amount of heat allowed. Sometimes the dots are embellished with a number giving the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius.

do not wring symbol

Do not wring. This symbol is used in Asia and North America.

do not chlorine bleach symbol

Do not use chlorine bleach. It is unclear whether peroxide bleach is acceptable or not.

nenormované symboly praní

Line dry.

Do not steam symbol

No steam. Do not use steam when ironing.

dry cleaning symbol American Australian

Professional dry cleaning with any solvent. This symbol is used in Australia and the U.S.

tumble dry symbol American

Tumble dry no heat. Used in North America.

do not bleach symbol American

Do not bleach. The filled-in triangle is used in North America and used to be common in European labelling as well.

Care labels when shopping for fabrics

We cannot speak for other merchants, but at Sartor we know how important proper labelling is for you. We take pains to include care information for all of our fabrics even though local legislation does not require it for goods sold by the meter. You will always find care instructions packed with each fabric order. Pay special attention whenever dry cleaning is recommended. Not all dry cleaners are created equal. Learn how to pick the right one with our tips.

What’s more, we include detailed care instructions on the product page for each of our fabrics, so you can see them while you’re shopping. We also regularly conduct washing tests (such as how to wash silk) on all of our fabrics and have published some of our findings on our blog, so check those out as well!

care instructions come with every fabric order
Sartor packs care instructions with every fabric order

Did this post help decipher some of the labels in your wardrobe?

Have you got a weird one that we didn’t cover?

Share it with us in the comments below!

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