Washing Symbols Explained: A Guide to Garment Care Labels

By: Nicholas Gerbis & Yara Simón  | 
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

There are symbols everywhere: the stop sign on your corner, the recycling symbols on the plastic you use every day and, of course, the care labels on clothes and other fabrics.

The washing symbols designate how you should, well, wash and care for the fabric. If you've been ignoring those tags and bemoaning your wardrobe's short lifespan, read on and never again launder your clothes at the wrong temperature.


Why Your Clothes Have Care Labels

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.

"Failing to provide reliable care instructions and warnings for the useful life of an item is a violation of the FTC Act," according to the FTC. "Violators are subject to enforcement actions and penalties of up to $16,000 for each offense. In enforcement actions, the FTC contends that each mislabeled garment is a violation."


There are some exceptions, however, such as trim that's a maximum of five inches wide and as much as 10 yards of manufacturers' remnants.

Categories of Laundry Symbols

laundry care symbols
This chart shows the five basic laundry care symbols, including a tub, triangle, iron, square and circle. Each one has variations with different meanings. 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

Washing Symbols

Represented by tubs, these symbols tell you washing methods and cycles and washing temperature.


  • Washing methods and washing cycles: On the first row, you will see whether to machine wash a clothing item, machine wash on the permanent press cycle, machine wash on the delicate cycle, hand wash or skip washing altogether.
  • Washing temperature: The washing temperature symbols are directly below the washing methods. The clothing label will tell you whether to wash hot (120 degrees F or 49 degrees C and up), wash warm (in temperatures that reach 105 degrees F or 41 degrees C) or wash cold (between 65 and 85 degrees F, or between 18 and 29 degrees C).

Bleaching Symbols

A triangle laundry symbol denotes whether you should use bleach and what kind of bleach to use (non-chlorine bleach vs. chlorine bleach).

Drying Symbols

The square shapes tell you what drying method, drying temperature and drying cycle to use. All of this will help your clothes retain their shape and size.

  • Drying methods: The labels will instruct you to do one of the following: tumble dry, don't tumble dry, hang to dry, dry flat or do not wring.
  • Drying temperature: The drying temperature symbols say whether you should use any heat, high heat, medium heat, low heat or no heat.
  • Drying cycle: The label will indicate which setting you should use on your dryer machine, such as the permanent press cycle, delicate or other specific cycle.

Iron Symbols

The ironing symbols detail whether to iron on low, medium or high, to skip the iron altogether or to not use steam.

Special Care and Warning Symbols

This section gives dry cleaning instructions, including whether or not to dry clean, what kind of solvent to use and if you can wet clean.


Deciphering Laundry Symbol Combinations

While you might find words on your care label, some manufacturers only use symbols. (The FTC suggests that those using just symbols provide additional information so that consumers can understand the care label.)

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, a crossed-out triangle 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.