Ever paused for several minutes in front of a washing machine because the care symbols on a new garment were impossible to decipher? In 1963, the international textile and garment care organization GINETEX was formed, and soon after, the familiar trademarked symbols were born. Today, the Federal Trade Commission enforces the Care Labeling Rule. There are also standards that manufacturers have to follow when using the symbols on their labels. Here’s a crash course on the meaning behind some of those symbols:

MACHINE WASHING

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A symbol that features a three-sided figure with a flat bottom, flared sides, a wavy line about a third of the way down, and a number in the middle signifies a machine washing instruction. The number represents the maximum temperature, in Celsius. For example, a 30 means that the garment should be washed with cold water that is at or below 30°C (or 86°F, which is the cold setting on most machines). An “X” through the symbol means that the item should not be washed, while a hand inside of the symbol means that it should be hand washed at a temperature between 30° C and 40° C.

There are several variations on this symbol. The number inside can also read 40 or 50 for warmer water, or 60 for hot. In the place of a number, some labels also use dots, with one dot for cold, two for warm, and three for hot water.


THE CYCLE 

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Niels Bosboom via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Lines under the washing symbol signify the cycle: no line for Normal, one line for Permanent Press, and two lines for Gentle or Delicate.

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André Riemann via Wikimedia Commons

BLEACHING

A triangle on care labels is the symbol for bleach. If the triangle is empty, any bleaching agent can be used. If there are stripes inside of the triangle, then non-chlorine bleach should be used, and if there is an “X” through it, do not use bleach on the article of clothing at all.

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André Riemann via Wikimedia Commons



DRYING

Squares on care labels indicate how an item should be dried. If the box includes a circle with two dots inside, then the item should be tumble dried at a “normal temperature,” or around 80° C. On the other hand, if the circle within the box only has one dot, then lower the temperature to 60° C. If there is an “X” across the box, then do not tumble dry at all.

Line drying is recommended if there are lines inside the box instead of circles and dots. There are several variations of this symbol: one vertical line for line drying, two vertical lines for drip line drying, and sometimes three for drip drying. You can also look for squares with one horizontal line that signify flat drying, and two lines indicating that an item should be drip flat dried. Diagonal lines (one or two) in the top left corner of the line, flat, or drip drying symbols means that it should be done in the shade.

IRONING

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André Riemann via Wikimedia Commons


The ironing symbol will look familiar to anyone who has played Monopoly. When shown alone, the symbol means that it is okay to use an iron on the item. As with previously mentioned symbols, dots inside signify temperature settings, and if there is an “X,” don't use it! There may also be an “X” over a pair of vertical lines beneath the iron, which means that steam should not be used.

PROFESSIONAL TEXTILE CARE

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If professional care is recommended, labels will show circles, often with letters inside. The letter “P” means you should have the item professionally dry cleaned, and that the cleaners can use that solvent or hydrocarbons for the job. The letter “F” means that only hydrocarbons should be used, and the letter “W” means that professional wet-cleaning is the way to go. If there are one or two horizontal lines under the circle, it means that the cleaners should treat the items as being more sensitive and should make the necessary adjustments to the “mechanical action, addition of moisture, and/or drying temperature.”