Laundry Symbols Explained: A Guide to Garment Care Labels

By: Nicholas Gerbis  | 
laundry care label
The laundry care label on this pair of blue jeans provides detailed information on how best to launder them. Anatoly Vartanov/Shutterstock

We're surrounded by symbols. Think about the stop sign on your corner or the recycling symbols on all the plastic you use every day. These are just two examples.

Not surprisingly, clothes and other fabrics have symbols, too — on their care labels. The symbols designate how the fabric must be washed or cared for.


Why Your Clothes Have Care Labels

Care labels? You probably think you know how to wash your clothes, so why would your clothes need care labels? Manufacturers attach care labels to garments to tell us the best ways to launder those items, including the best detergent to use, the ideal water temperature, whether to line dry or use the dryer, etc.

You don't want to wash and tumble dry a dry-clean-only cashmere sweater, after all. It will shrink and you'll never be able to wear it again. That's where those care labels come in handy. They tell us exactly how to care for our clothes so there's no guessing involved.


The Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Care Labeling Rule requires manufacturers use care labels on garments and the FTC enforces the rule. Most clothes and fabrics require labels with exceptions for gloves, hats, shoes, handkerchiefs, belts, suspenders and neckties.

You've probably seen these tags on your own clothes and noticed they differ from garment to garment. One tag might have more symbols than another; some have symbols and text. So how do you know what they mean?


What Those Laundry Symbols Mean

laundry care symbols
This chart shows the five basic laundry care symbols, including a tub, triangle, iron, square and circle. Each one has a different meaning. YummyBuum/Shutterstock

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) created the symbols for the Standard Guide for Care Symbols for Care Instructions on Textile Products. They're similar to those used by many European countries. Both use five symbols featured in the same order from left to right:

  • tub shape: washing by hand or machine
  • triangle: bleaching
  • square: drying
  • iron: iron settings
  • circle: special care/warnings

A circle by itself usually means dry cleaning or wet cleaning. A circle inside a square changes "dry" to "tumble dry."


Adding lines, dots and other marks to these base symbols adds more information. 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.

So because the triangle represents bleaching, if it is crossed-out that means "do not bleach," whereas a standard triangle signifies bleaching is OK on that garment. A standard tumble dry symbol means any heat level is fine, but a solid circle means no heat at all.

Some tags use a tiny hand to denote it requires hand-washing. And the list goes on. When you start looking at those five basic symbols, you'll see a language almost begin to form.

Clearly, care symbols pack a lot of data into a small space, but experts agree that there's room for improvement. A lot of people still don't understand the symbols and the lack of global standards makes providing care labels expensive and logistically difficult.

But if you pay close attention to the care labels on your garments and follow their instructions, you have a better chance of keeping your clothes in fabulous condition.