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What do those clothing label symbols actually mean?

Hint: Pay attention to those symbols on the clothing label.

A triangle with an X over it means bleach is a big no-no.
Alina Bradford/CNET

The little laundry symbols found on clothing tags aren't just suggestions. They're basically your user's manual for how to take care of your garment so it lasts as long as possible.

Ignoring these icons can leave you with shrunken, discolored or mangled clothes. Here's what the most common laundry symbols mean on your clothing's care label, so you can clean them effectively and safely on laundry day.

The wash basin icon


The wash basin symbol.


The wash basin icon is basically a tub with water in it. If you see it on the label, that means your clothing item can be washed. If it's crossed out, then your garment can't be washed, and typically needs to be dry cleaned.

That seems simple, right? Well, a wash basin icon can come with many extra markings, as shown in the illustration above.

Let's break all of those extras down:

  • If there is a number inside the basin, that is the maximum water temperature (in Celsius) that you should use to wash the item. A label that says 30 means a water temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit, 40 means 104 degrees Fahrenheit, 60 means 140 degrees Fahrenheit and 95 means 203 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Dots inside the basin also indicate temperature, with one dot for cold water, two dots for warm water, and three dots for hot water.
  • No lines below the basin means you should wash the item using the normal cycle of your washing machine.
  • One line under the basin means the clothing item needs to be washed on the permanent press cycle.
  • 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, instead of using a washing machine.

These symbols help decode which fabrics can withstand the washing process, which can ruin delicate fabric.

Ironing icons


Ironing icons.


Just like with the basin symbol, if you see an iron symbol with the care instructions it means you can iron the garment, while a crossed out icon means you can't. Then, there are variations.

Dots inside the icon tell you which heat setting to use. If you see one dot inside of an iron icon, that 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 for cotton or linen fabric.

Lines are important, too. Lines coming from the bottom of the iron icon means that you can steam the garment. Lines crossed out below the iron means the garment can't be steamed.

Dryer icons


Dryer icons.


The laundry symbols for drying in a dryer is a square with a circle in it, or sometimes just a circle. If you see the dryer symbol crossed out, don't put your clothing item in the dryer. It may shrink or be damaged by the heat. Typically, it's best to let these items air dry.

Keep an eye out for dots. A tumble dry symbol with a dot in the center means that the item can tumble dry using the normal heat setting. Two dots means the item can be tumble dried on high heat. An empty circle means you can use any temperature setting.

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Also, pay attention to whether the icon is colored-in or not. If you see a colored-in dryer icon, it means you need to tumble dry the item without heat.

Bleach icons


Bleach icons.


Many people just assume, if a garment is white, it can be bleached. Hold up there, buddy. Make sure to check the label first.

An open triangle means you can go ahead and use bleach, but a triangle with lines through it (like the middle triangle, above) means you should use nonchlorine bleach. A triangle that is crossed out means bleach of any sort is a bad idea and should be avoided.

Dry-cleaning icons


Dry cleaning icons.


A circle with a letter inside means an item needs to be taken to a dry cleaner. The letter lets the dry cleaner know what kind of cleaning process your garment needs. You don't need to know what the letters mean, but you should never ignore these symbols and throw a garment in the washer anyway.

More laundry care tips: