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What do the washing symbols on wash care labels mean?

Find out what washing symbols mean once and for all with our expert guide to understanding your care labels.

Updated

Hands holding a clothing wash care label

Those little laundry symbols on your clothing are trying to tell you something – decode the washing instructions on labels and you will be able to keep your clothes in the best possible condition for the longest possible time.

Everybody has experienced the heartbreak of pulling out a favourite item of clothing from the washing machine only to find that it is now shrunken, saggy, discoloured or damaged.

Though they might appear confusing at first, knowing what the various different washing symbols mean will take the hassle out of laundry time and prevent you from ruining any more clothing.

Understanding washing symbols

Each care label on your clothing should tell you what the fabric is made from and feature at least four symbols giving you guidance on washing, bleaching, drying and ironing (in that order). Many will also come with a recommended temperature as well.

While we get into the specifics and break down the most common symbols below, as a general rule:

  • Washing tub symbols cover all things washing related (including machine and hand washing)
  • Triangles tell you about bleaching: whether you can do it, and what type of bleach is appropriate
  • Squares refer to how the item should be dried 
  • An ironing icon gives you info on (you guessed it) the most appropriate iron settings to use
  • Circles tell you about dry cleaning your garment

In almost all cases, any of the above symbols with a cross or X through them means you should not carry out that action.

Ready to decipher washing labels once and for all? Let’s get stuck in.

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Basic washing instructions on care labels

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Washing machine symbols
  • Washing tub symbol: Depicted as a stylised wash tub filled with water, this means your garment can be washed in the machine machine. It usually also means the clothing can be spun and rinsed normally (or using the synthetic cycle).
  • Washing tub symbol with one line underneath: A single bar beneath the standard wash symbol indicates that the garment is a “permanent press” one, which means the fabrics have been treated with chemicals to ensure they resist wrinkles and retain their original shape. This also means the spin speed should be reduced (if your washing machine has a “permanent press” setting, definitely use this as it will also introduce a cold rinse before the spin to persevere the permanent press even further).
  • Washing tub symbol with two lines underneath: The gentle cycle symbol has two lines beneath the standard wash symbol. It’s usually featured on the labels of delicate fibres like wool or silk, or for items of clothing that could be damaged by a vigorous washing (like sequinned tops, tights or lycra). It should be washed and spun on a gentle, delicate or wool cycle.
  • Washing tub symbol with a number inside: This tells you the maximum temperature the garment should be watched at, and can range from 30°C to 95°C. 
  • Washing tub symbol with a hand: The hand wash symbol is the standard tub symbol with a hand at the top. If your clothing label features this symbol it means you should not use a washing machine. Instead, you’ll need to wash your garment by hand – don’t worry, it’s not as hard as you might think. Our guide to how to hand wash clothes has you covered. 
  • Wash symbol with a cross over it: When the standard wash symbol has an X through it, this means you should not wash the item, it will most likely need to be dry cleaned after it gets dirty – see our section on dry cleaning symbols below.

Washing temperature symbols

Temperature symbols

Is there a dot inside your wash symbol? This will tell you what maximum temperature the clothing manufacturer recommends washing your garment in. This can range from 30°C to 95°C.

  • One dot: 30°C
  • Two dots: 40°C
  • Three dots: 50°C
  • Four dots: 60°C
  • Five dots: 70°C
  • Six dots: 95°C

Alternatively, some labels will simply show the tub icon with a number showing the maximum temperature.

Don’t forget, you can always choose to wash your clothing at a lower temperature than the one shown on your label.

Wringing symbols

Wringing symbols

Washing clothes without a dryer? You’ll want to pay attention to any wringing symbols your care label might have.

  • Twisted towel: If you see the towel symbol on a garment it means you can safely wring it out to remove excess water.
  • Twisted towel symbol with a cross over it: Some items are very delicate and can be damaged by wringing – if you see the wring symbol with an X through it, it means you should avoid wringing or twisting them.

Bleaching symbols

Bleaching symbols

This is usually the next symbol on your care label, and is almost always some variant of a triangle.

  • A plain triangle: If you see a triangle it means you can use a cold, diluted solution of bleach on the garment when needed.
  • A triangle with two stripes: A triangle filled with diagonal lines means that only non-chlorine bleaches should be used. Check the ingredients on your bleach to see if it contains chlorine. 
  • A solid triangle with a cross over it: This means ‘do not bleach’ – you should not attempt to use any kind of bleach on this garment.

Tumble drying symbols

Tumble drying symbols

As with the washing symbols, the number of dots inside the circle will tell you the heat setting you should put your tumble dryer on to, as well as any specific program settings required.

  • A square with three vertical lines inside: If you see this symbol, it means you should let your item drip dry (usually on a line).
  • A circle inside a square: This is the basic tumble dry symbol and means you can safely tumble dry the garment.
  • A circle inside a square with a line underneath: Like before, a single line beneath the standard dry symbol means the item is “permanent press” so use that setting if your machine has it.
  • A solid circle inside a square: A large, filled-in circle inside a square tells you that you can tumble dry your item with no heat (or on an “air only” setting, if your machine has one)
  • A circle inside a square with one, two or three dots in the middle: As with the washing symbols, the number of dots inside the circle will tell you the heat setting you should put your tumble dryer on to – one dot means low heat, two for slightly higher heat and three means you can tumble dry the garment on a high heat.
  • A circle inside a square with a cross over it: When the standard tumble dry symbol has an X through it, this means you shouldn’t tumble try the garment. Usually that means leaving it to drip dry on a clothes horse or outdoors on a line.

Line drying symbols

Line drying symbols

Some clothing doesn’t fare well in a tumble dryer, and is better suited to drying out in the open air or indoors on a clothes horse.

  • A semi-circle inside a square: This means that the garment can be hung outside on a washing line.
  • A square with two diagonal lines in the top corner: This again refers to line drying, but means the item should be dried in the shade, away from direct sunlight.
  • A square with a single horizontal line inside: This means you should lay the garment flat for drying (which can often help a garment keep its shape).

Ironing symbols

Ironing symbols

To make life easy, the ironing symbol is shaped like an old-fashioned iron.

Ironing symbols also employ the same dot system for heat levels, which should be adjustable on your iron. (Don’t fancy ironing your garment? Our top hacks for less ironing are here to help).

  • Ironing symbol with one dot: One dot inside the standard ironing symbol means the item should be ironed on a low setting (ideally below 110ºC). You’ll usually find this on delicate fabrics like silk or wool. 
  • Ironing symbol with two dots: Two dots indicate the garment should be ironed on a medium setting (around 150ºC–180ºC) and is most commonly seen on synthetic fabrics.
  • Ironing symbol with three dots: This means that the item can be ironed on high (over 200º), and usually found on fabrics like cotton and linen.
  • Ironing symbol with a cross through it: If the standard ironing symbol has an X through it, it means you should not iron the garment.

Dry cleaning symbols

Dry cleaning symbols
  • A plain circle: This means the item of clothing is suitable for dry cleaning or is dry clean only.
  • A circle with a letter inside it: If there’s a letter inside the circle (usually either an A, an F or a P), this is so the professional dry cleaner knows which method chemical wash to use.
  • A circle with a line on the bottom left or bottom right: Again, this is designed to be useful for the professional dry cleaner. A line on the bottom left means a short cycle and on the bottom right indicates low heat.
  • A circle with an X over it: If your garment has a circle with an X through it, it means you should not dry clean it. Washing your clothes properly

A great laundry routine starts at the label and continues onto the machine. It’s important to know how to use a washing machine properly and learn what the wash settings on a washing machine mean, so that you match the care instructions on the labels to the best possible setting on your machine.  

Originally published