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Care Tag Labels Decoded – What Do Those Laundry Symbols Mean?

I’m a fairly easy-going guy. Lunch plans get moved around? No problem. Missed an exit that will now add 20 minutes to my ETA? Whatever. That sandwich has been out on the kitchen counter for over a day? Never gotten food poisoning before. Same goes for my clothes. I basically do the bare minimum that a self-proclaimed clothing nerd can do to keep his/her clothes from falling apart. Shoe trees in my shoes, hand wash my jeans every now and then, hang dry the clothes I really care about.

Beyond those basics, I’m just fulfilling the upper tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of laundering needs. I have an extremely vague idea of what the care tag symbols mean. If they were scattered amongst an Egyptian tomb, I would have no way of telling that a priceless hieroglyphic artifact had been tampered with. So, like any good paleontologist, I went digging. What do these symbols mean? How literally should one take them? And how cool would an Egyptian flax linen Guayabara shirt look?

It might be obvious to everyone else, because we do have some savvy readers out there (yes, I’m talking to you), but there are associations that oversee the whole textile care label thing. The one for Europe is called GINETEX and it was founded in Paris in 1963. Not only do they decide on the standardization of these care tag symbols, these symbols are actually trademarked in many countries. However, the United States is not one of the 22 countries using the GINETEX standard. Instead, they get their care tag instructions from the Federal Trade Commision (FTC) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ATSM). For the most part, though, the symbols are pretty much the same.

There are five basic symbols:

  1. Washing
  2. Bleaching
  3. Drying
  4. Ironing
  5. Professional Textile Care

Within each of these categories, there are more specific symbols denoted by more detailed pictograms. Let’s break them down one by one.



This one looks like a muffin without the top, but it actually denotes ‘washing’ in the laundering world. This one will often include a number within it to indicate the ideal water temperature. In the US, the temperature is indicated by dots.

  • One line underneath the muffin means you set the washer to ‘easy care’.
  • Two lines ‘neath the muffin and you’re in ‘very mild’ wash territory.


  • The one with the hand inside of it means that the muffin is a finger food. Obviously, you wouldn’t eat one with a fork and knife. If you do, please reconsider your life. Or maybe it means ‘hand wash’.



The favorite symbol of hipsters and Illuminati alike, care tags have adopted it into their secret language to mean bleach.


  • This one with the lines inside of it means you can only use oxygen bleach (a sodium percarbonate powder like Oxi-Clean) and not chlorine bleach.


  • The last one with the ‘X’ through it means ‘No Bleach Allowed’.



  • The drying symbol, denoted by a square, can be divided into two categories: machine drying, and natural drying.


  • For machine drying, the one that looks like a goat’s eye means you can go hard and throw your clothes in the dryer with no negative repercussions.


  • The one that that has the single-dotted circle means you go mild on it.

Wet drying is a bit more complicated.


  • Vertical lines indicate line drying.


  • Horizontal lines indicate flat drying.


  • If there’s a diagonal line in the top left corner, that means you find a tree and dry that thing in the shade.



If there was a stick figure for a clothes iron, this would be it. Usually, they’ll contain a number of dots within it to indicate the level of heat you can use to iron your garment.


  • 3 dots = hot, 2 dots = moderate, 1 dot = low. Many irons will include settings with dots on them which correspond to the care label.


  • As much as you might want to bust out your iron, fill it with triple distilled water, and get to smoothing out your undies, if you see this symbol, do not iron that garment.

Professional Textile Care


This one is also divided into two categories: dry cleaning and wet cleaning. This one is so complicated that if you’re about to take your garment to the cleaners, they should be able to read the label and know what to do. If they don’t, then you need to find yourself a new cleaner who is fluent in Care Label Pictograms.

One very important note to consider when taking the advice of these trademarked lines is that they don’t tell you the prescribed way to care for your clothes. Rather, they tell you the maximum amount that your clothes can withstand before they go through irreversible damage. So if your shirt tag bears a ‘Wash Hot’ symbol, that doesn’t mean you can’t wash that shirt in cold water. If anything, the best care for most garments is to hand wash in cold water with mild soap and hang dry. That being said, companies will often include their own laundering recommendations for keeping your clothes looking and performing their best.

So go forth, tell your friends what you learned, and care for your clothes appropriately.


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