Getting the most from your clothing requires good laundry practices, but that means you have to actually know best laundry practices. While we are committed to helping you with that and providing you with the best detergent possible, there's more to it. There are half a dozen cycle types or more on the modern washing machine or dryer. Furthermore, on the tags on your clothing, you are likely to see many other shapes, dots and lines that can sometimes defy explanation.
The washing symbols are great if you need to check at a glance what to do, and they save clothing from having larger tags, but what if they just look like gibberish to you? We have to admit, most of the symbols are pretty difficult to understand and often prevent people from properly cleaning their clothes and linens.
To make things a bit easier, here are all the standard symbols you might find on a care label and what they mean. We would like to note, however, that some may vary slightly from country to country. Keep reading to learn more from our laundry symbols guide.
Check the Washing Symbols on the Care Label to Determine Whether to Machine Wash or Hand Wash
You might see the following symbols on either clothing labels, linen care tags or on your bottle/package of detergent.
The basis for most washing symbols is a stylized wash bin or wash tub. Variations can let you know the settings you should use on your washing machine.
Common Symbols Featuring a Washing Machine
- The standard "wash bin" symbol means the article is machine washable.
- If there is a wash bin with the number 30 inside, machine wash the article at or below 30 degrees Celsius. In the United States, you might see a dot inside the wash bin instead.
- If there is a wash bin with the number 40 inside, wash the article at or below 40 degrees Celsius. In the United States, you might see two dots inside the wash bin instead.
- If there is a wash bin with the number 50 inside, wash the article at or below 50 degrees Celsius. In the United States, you might see three dots inside the wash bin instead.
- If there is a wash bin with the number 60 inside, wash the article at or below 60 degrees Celsius. In the United States, you might see four dots inside the wash bin instead.
- If you see a wash bin with a hand inside, you are looking at the hand wash symbol, which tells you that the article is meant to be hand washed.
- If you see a wash bin with an X through it, then you should not wash the article at all.
- For European clothing or tags going by the European standard, you can check the level of agitation recommended by looking for bars below the wash bin. A single bar means a gentle or medium wash and a double bar represents a very gentle wash. This affects the cycle you should use as well as the level of spin.
Understanding Bleaching Symbols: When to Use Bleach
Given that bleaching is so prevalent and helpful in getting rid of the worst stains, many pieces of clothing or fabric have their own bleaching symbols. Of course, there are many items you should not bleach, which will be noted with symbols (hopefully).
The basis for bleaching symbols will be a triangle.
- If you see a basic or empty triangle, that means that you can bleach the article with both chlorine and non-chlorine bleach.
- Note that with older clothing, you might see a triangle with the letters "CL" inside. This means the same thing.
- If you see a triangle with two diagonal lines inside it, use non-chlorine bleach only when needed.
- If you see a triangle with a cross through it, whether it is fully shaded in or not, it means do not bleach the article.
Decoding Drying Symbols: Line, Drip, Flat or Tumble Dry?
In addition to washing symbols, there are usually drying symbols to tell you how to dry an article after washing it. Since improper drying can lead to shrinkage or even damage, it is highly recommended that you pay attention to these symbols and follow their instructions. They’ll let you know whether you can tumble dry using high heat or low heat or if you need to line dry or drip dry the item. Interestingly, there are far more variations of drying symbols than anything else.
They might be in the same location as the washing symbols or, in rare instances, they could be on another tag or set of instructions entirely.
Tumble Dry Symbols
When looking at tumble dry symbols, pay close attention to the number of dots inside the square as they indicate the temperature at which you can safely tumble dry the item.
- If you see a circle inside of a square, then you can tumble or machine dry the article using your machine’s maximum temperature settings.
- If you see two dots inside of a circle inside of a square, then you can tumble dry the article at normal temperatures (i.e., medium heat).
- If you see a single dot inside of a circle inside of a square, then you can tumble dry the article at a low temperature.
- If you see a cross over the circle inside of a square, then you should not tumble dry the article. Instead, you will likely need to rely on air drying. This is particularly common for delicate items.
Natural Drying Laundry Symbols
Natural drying has as the basis of its symbol a square with no circle inside of it. The lines inside the square let you know the care instructions for items of clothing that require air drying.
- If you see a curved line at the top of the square, then line dry the article.
- If you see a horizontal line in the center of the square, then dry the article flat.
- If you see three vertical lines inside the square, then drip dry the article.
- If you see two diagonal lines on the top left of the square, then dry the article in the shade.
- If you see two diagonal lines on the top left of the square and a curved line at the top, you need to line dry the article in the shade.
- If you see two diagonal lines on the top left of the square and a horizontal line in the center of the square, then dry the article flat in the shade.
- If you see two diagonal lines on the top left of the square and three vertical lines in the square, then drip dry the article in the shade.
Professional Cleaning Symbols
You can't clean everything at home, and you really shouldn't try. Some clothing can get damaged or terribly faded with standard cleaning practices, in which case professional cleaning and laundering services should be used. However, professionals who work at these facilities need guides as to what to do with some articles. These symbols are primarily for them, but learning to recognize them can help you as well by making it easier to determine if a garment requires wet cleaning, dry cleaning, etc.
In any case, a circle is a symbol for professional cleaning. If you see a circle, that does not necessarily exclude you from washing it yourself, though. Just look for one of the other symbols on the tags or any instructions that say "professional cleaning only" to steer you in one way or another.
If you see a circle with an "X" through it, do not dry clean the article.
Wet Cleaning Symbols
Professional launderers who use more standard laundry machines, though perhaps on an industrial level, will use these symbols.
- A W inside a circle means a standard professional wet cleaning.
- A W inside a circle with a line under it means gentle, professional wet cleaning is recommended.
- A W inside a circle with two lines under it means that very gentle wet cleaning is recommended.
- A fully blacked-in circle with a cross through it means do not wet clean the article.
Dry Cleaning Symbols
Dry cleaners will use these symbols. It should be noted that there are variations to dry cleaning, and there are symbols and letters to note this.
- An F inside a circle means to dry clean with hydrocarbon solvent (HCS) only.
- An F inside a circle with a line under it means that gentle cleaning with hydrocarbon solvents should be used.
- An F inside a circle with two lines means that very gentle cleaning with hydrocarbon solvents is recommended.
- A P inside a circle means to dry clean with tetrachloroethylene (PCE) only.
- A P inside a circle with a line under it means use PCE with gentle cleaning methods.
- A P inside a circle with two lines under it means to use PCE with very gentle cleaning methods.
There may be other professional cleaning symbols, or they may vary by region, but these are the ones used for most fabrics and articles of clothing. This means there wouldn't be many other instructions to give. When in doubt about washing instructions, it never hurts to visit a professional laundry service, such as a dry cleaner, in your area to ask for help. If nothing else, they can provide guidance to help you better understand how to care for your apparel.
Understanding Ironing Symbols
If you iron your clothes after you dry them, there may also be ironing symbols to consider. They should be located near any other laundry care labels or pictograms. Pay close attention to these symbols, especially before ironing delicate items, like satin blouses, cashmere sweaters, etc.
A stylized iron will be the basis for all ironing-related symbols and instructions.
- If you see an iron without any other markings or symbols, that means you can iron the article at any temperature, with or without steam.
- A dot at the center of the iron means minimum or cool heat, reverse side.
- Two dots at the center of the iron means iron the article at medium temperature.
- Three dots at the center of the iron means to iron the article at high temperatures.
- If you see the ironing symbol and an "X" over it, do not iron the article of clothing.
- If there is an iron with what appears to be a puff of steam below it and an "X" over the puff of steam, do not steam iron it.
Common Clothing Care Instructions
In addition to actual symbols, there might be some standard instructions or notes that go with them. Here are some of the most common and some background information:
- When you see "dry clean only" on your clothing, it really does mean dry clean only, and that you should take it to a professional dry cleaner. Dry cleaning is a chemical process utterly different from anything a washer or dryer can do, and poor treatment and running it through a cycle can ruin your clothing. While it can cost a little bit and can be a hassle, it's not even close to the hassle and cost of needing to buy new clothes. There are home dry-cleaning kits, but they aren’t nearly as safe or effective as taking your clothes to a professional cleaner.
- Pay close attention to the care instructions when trying to remove a stain. Many products — including bleach and any stain removers containing chlorine bleach — aren’t safe for all fabrics. When in doubt, stick with natural products like white vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice, etc.
- If you plan on removing tags or worry that instructions on labels will fade over time, take a picture or notes of how to clean it for future reference, especially if it's expensive.
- The amount of laundry detergent that you use should be determined primarily by the package of detergent you are using. Read the instructions carefully to determine how much you should use. Some eco-friendly or efficient detergents do not require as much as the washing machine recommends by default. Too much can lead to a sudsy nightmare that will threaten to take over your laundry room. Using excessive amounts of laundry detergent can damage the washing machine and cause it to break down prematurely, too. You can prevent this by using our laundry detergent sheets that are ultra-concentrated and perfectly sized. Just toss in anywhere from half a sheet to two full sheets based on your load for a powerful clean without the hassle of measuring.
Most laundry symbols are clearly explained or easy to understand. Yet, a few can always trip people up or are used infrequently enough to give launderers pause. There is a lot to learn if you want to take it all in at once, so instead, we recommend you come back to this article as you feel the need and even bookmark it if you need to. Eventually, the laundry care symbols will become second nature to you, especially the most used ones. May laundry get easier for you — and may your clothes last as long as you'd like.