What's the deal with those laundry symbols, and how do I tell them apart?

What does this even mean?!
What does this even mean?!
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In our daily lives, we're surrounded by symbols meant to guide us, warn us and convey concepts quickly. From the diamond-shaped hazardous-materials placards on tractor-trailers, rail cars and cargo containers to the glyphs and emoji on our cell phones, ours is a semiotic world, awash with signifiers ranging from the elegant to the enigmatic.

Not surprisingly, clothing care symbols — those squares, circles, tringles, swooshes, lines and dots on the labels of almost everything we wear — fall somewhere in between. After all, as anyone who's played Pictionary can attest, we don't all share the same ideas of what makes for an effective symbol. One person's "baby talk" is another's "baby fish mouth." Old movie references aside, clothing-care symbols are a code worth knowing, whether you're washing your duds or deciding whether buying that angora sweater is really worth the aggravation.

As near as we could find out, clothing care labels in America date back at least to the 1950s. They gained steam in the 1960s but didn't become federally regulated until 1983 [sources: FTC, Michael]. Today, most clothes and fabrics require labels (exceptions include gloves, hats and shoes) [source: FTC]. Typically, an apparel company sends tag designs with care info to a label supplier, which turns out the labels and sends them back for approval. From there, they go to the contractors who cut and sew the garments [sources: Flores, McGuire, Michael].

All well and good — but where did the symbols come from in the first place? Turns out, the symbols we use today are a rather recent development.

"In the late '90s to early 2000s the American Society for Testing and Materials, ASTM International, put out a standardized set of care symbols with the goal of creating a universally understood set," said Adam Flores Jr., technical service manager at Progressive Label Inc.

If you've ever looked at these tags, you've perhaps noticed they can differ quite a bit. Some have more symbols, others fewer; some sport text, symbols or both. So what gives? Well, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces label rules in the U.S., doesn't mind a little efficiency, as long as the message gets across. So if your label simply says, "Machine wash. Tumble dry," (and nothing more) then feel free to wash and dry at any temperature, using any bleach you like, without worrying about ironing or special treatment [source: FTC].

That said, the rules do try to prevent likely mix-ups — such as assuming a machine-washable garment is OK to iron — as well as consumer fraud [sources: Flores, FTC].

"Companies providing the care information have to have a reasonable basis for the information they disclose, which they develop from testing, experience with similar garments, information from the mills, etc.," said Catherine Michael of the American Apparel & Footwear Association.

Let's take a closer look at those symbols and what they mean.

The Label Lexicon

  HowStuffWorks 2016
HowStuffWorks 2016

ASTM symbols follow a simple scheme and a set order: wash (tub shape), bleach (triangle), dry (square), iron (iron) and special care (circle). A circle by itself usually means dry cleaning or wet cleaning. A circle (special care) inside a square (drying) changes "dry" to "tumble dry."

Adding lines, dots and other marks modify these base symbols and adds info. For example, a large X through a symbol negates it or offers a warning, whereas an empty symbol often means that any version of what the symbol represents is OK to use. Thus, a crossed-out triangle means do not bleach, whereas an empty triangle tells you that any bleach will do. Adding two parallel diagonal lines means to use only non-chlorine/oxygen bleach.

One, two or three dots used with the tumble dry and iron symbols indicate cold, medium and hot, respectively. But when used with the washer symbol, the number of dots relates to actual temperatures:

  • Six: 200° F/95° C
  • Five: 160° F/70° C
  • Four: 140° F/60° C
  • Three: 120° F/50° C
  • Two: 105° F/40° C
  • One: 65-85° F/18-30° C

An empty tumble dry symbol allows any heat, while a filled-in circle means no heat. Some tags use a tiny hand to mean hand washing — a bit on the nose, but effective.

Under the wash (tub) or dry (square) symbol, one line means permanent press, two lines indicate delicate or gentle cycle, and zero lines mean to use normal cycle. A single line beneath a dry clean symbol (a circle with a P or F) calls for a mild cycle, and two lines under a wet clean symbol (a circle with a W) means very mild cycle. By the way, the P or F indicate which dry cleaning solvent to use: tetrachloroethylene or petroleum (P) or petroleum solvent only (F).

And the list goes on. There's even a symbol for drying in the shade, which can combine with the symbols for line dry (square with a curved line), drip dry (square with three vertical bars) and lie flat (square with horizontal bar) [source: ASTM].

Clearly, care symbols pack a lot of data into a small space, but experts agree that there's room for improvement. As the need for this article demonstrates, most people don't understand the symbols. Moreover, the current lack of global standards makes providing care labels to other countries inconvenient, expensive and logistically maddening.

"Different standards per country make it difficult to manage and, if you sell your clothing globally, your care labels can become quite long with all required information," said Patrick McGuire, vice president of information technology for Nexgen Packaging. "A more global care-labeling system would help to make managing care labeling more efficient and reduce the required information."

Author's Note: What's the deal with those laundry symbols, and how do I tell them apart?

As a former scientist and as someone who deals in language for a living, I have to say that I'm not entirely comfortable with our clothes care-labeling system — mainly because it expects you to assume that a lack of information (e.g., it doesn't tell you not to wash in hot water) is, itself, a kind of information (therefore it's OK to do so).

In science, we have a mantra that says, "Lack of proof is not proof of lack," and it's in my journalistic nature to avoid assumptions and to nail down the undefined or unspoken. All of which is my longwinded way of saying that our care-labeling system is a wonder of efficiency, but only if everyone has a complete understanding of it in the first place.

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Sources

  • ASTM International. "ASTM D5489 – 14: Standard Guide for Care Symbols for Care Instructions on Textile Products." Book of Standards Vol. 07.02. (Dec. 13, 2015) http://www.astm.org/Standards/D5489.htm
  • Flores, Adam Jr. Technical service manager, Progressive Label Inc. Personal correspondence. Dec. 4, 2015.
  • Mc Guire, Patrick. Vice president, information technology, Nexgen Packaging LLC. Personal correspondence. Dec. 9, 2015.
  • Michael, Catherine. Vice president of communications and marketing, American Apparel & Footwear Association. Personal correspondence. Dec. 10, 2015.
  • U.S. Federal Trade Commission. "Care Labeling of Textile Wearing Apparel & Certain Piece Goods, as Amended Effective September 1, 2000." 16 CFR Part 423. (Dec. 13, 2015) https://www.ftc.gov/node/119456
  • U.S. Federal Trade Commission. "Clothes Captioning: Complying with the Care Labeling Rule." May 2014. (Dec. 13, 2015) https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/clothes-captioning-complying-care-labeling-rule#Frequently_Asked_Questions
  • U.S. Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA). "Labeling Requirements." (Dec. 13, 2015) http://web.ita.doc.gov/tacgi/overseasnew.nsf/d1c13cd06af5e3a9852576b20052d5d5/fad8900a6a29da2b8525789d0049ea04