This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.
Those tags in your clothes may be scratchy or irritating, but they're actually super helpful -- so don't cut them out and throw them away just yet. If you look closely on your labels, you'll find a number of little symbols. No, those icons aren't gibberish. They're a cheat code for how to properly take care of your garments so they look new for longer.
These symbols can prevent shrinkage, discoloration and pilling, so it's important to decipher exactly what they mean. Here's what the most common laundry symbols mean on your clothing's care label. (And for more laundry tips, explore these popular laundry products you need to ditch and the most energy-efficient way to do your laundry to save money.)
Wash bin icon
The wash basin icon is a diagram of a tub with water, which means your garment can be washed in the washing machine. While that seems simple enough, there are several different variations of this icon as shown in the illustration above.
Let's break all of those extra markings down:
- If there's a tub crossed out, then your garment can't be machine washed, and either needs to be dry cleaned or hand washed.
- If there's a tub with a number in it, that figure is the maximum water temperature (in Celsius) to machine wash the item. A label that says 30 means a water temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit, 40 means 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and so on (to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit, multiply by 1.8 and then add 32 -- or ask Google).
- Dots inside the basin indicate temperature. One dot means cold water, two dots mean warm water and three dots mean hot water.
- Lines below the basin indicate which washing machine cycle to use. No lines below the basin means to wash the item using the normal cycle, one line under the basin means it needs to be washed on the permanent press cycle and two lines means the item should be washed on the gentle cycle.
- A hand in the basin means you need to hand-wash the item.
If you see a circle inside of a square on your care label, this icon breaks down drying instructions. If the dryer icon is crossed out, don't dry in the machine and instead opt to line or air dry. This is important to note to prevent shrinkage or heat damage.
The dots in the center of the dryer icon indicate what temperature setting to use when machine drying. One dot means you can tumble dry using normal heat. Two dots means tumble dry on high heat, and an empty circle means you can dry using any temperature setting.
The iron symbol (as shown above) simply means you can iron the garment, while a crossed out iron icon means you can't. But like the wash bin icons, there are variations:
- Dots inside the icon tell you which heat setting to use: one dot inside the iron icon means you need to use a low heat setting, two dots means you should use a medium heat setting and three dots indicates a high heat setting (usually suitable for cotton or linen fabrics).
- Lines indicate if you can steam the garment. Lines crossed out below the iron means the garment can't be steamed.
Here's an important tip: just because it's white, that doesn't mean it can automatically be bleached. Certain materials like spandex, wool, silk, mohair or leather will be ruined by bleach no matter the color of the item. However, most white linens and cotton garments are bleach-friendly.
The triangle icons on the care label will explain if you can or cannot bleach. An open triangle means it's safe to use bleach, but a triangle crossed out means to never use any kind of bleach. If there's a triangle icon with lines through it (like the middle icon above) then you can use specifically nonchlorine bleach, but only this type, otherwise the garment may be ruined.
Dry cleaning icons
You can't just throw every garment in the washer and be done with it. Some items, especially professional clothes or garments made from luxury textiles, need to be dry-cleaned. Dry cleaning instructions are shown with circle icons.
If you see a circle (as shown above), then your garment needs to be cleaned by a professional dry cleaner. However, a circle icon crossed out means the garment can be easily damaged by solvents used in dry cleaning processes. In this case, you'd follow the machine or hand wash instructions.
A circle with a letter inside tells the dry cleaner what kind of cleaning process to use. While you may never need to know these for your own cleaning, it can be helpful to know anyway.
- A capital letter "A" means the dry cleaner can use any cleaning solvent on the garment.
- A capital letter "P" means the dry cleaner can use any solvent except anything specifically listed.
- A capital letter "F" means the dry cleaner will be using petroleum-based solvents and cannot be dry cleaned by standard solvents.
- A capital letter "W" indicates the garment needs to be wet cleaned.
For better or worse, laundry is part of our weekly, if not daily, routine. So it's important to do it right. We've got more laundry tips for you, including these nine laundry hacks that solve common problems and the best way to machine wash your sheets.