Apparel Care 101: The Meaning of Laundry Symbols

Olivia Elsher

Dec 31, 2023

laundry room

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Misinterpreting the meaning of laundry symbols isn’t as dangerous as misreading road signs. Still, ruining your lucky shirt, a pricey authentic basketball jersey or your kid’s favorite plush doll can be traumatic.

Washing, drying and ironing symbols exist for a reason. Unfortunately, they’re hieroglyphs to many. It’s easier to ignore these head-scratchers and pray nothing wrong happens to clothes than to decode them.

If you never pay attention to fabric care labels, you’re not alone. However, leave the crowd behind, look at the pictograms stitched to your garments, and understand the apparel manufacturers’ suggestions regarding washing, drying and ironing to make your wardrobe last.

The Meaning of Washing Symbols

The 3-sided isosceles trapezoid with wavy water is the common denominator of these symbols. Some can be confusing since they provide no context or don’t allude to the washer feature they’re referring to.

Wash, Normal Cycle

Washtub icon

Stock Apparel Wash Symbol Vector Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Resized from original and added to a white background

This visual means putting your garment in a machine, spinning and rinsing it, which is usually safe. When there’s a line under the washtub icon, it means you should reduce the spin speed. Two lines indicate mild wash, but you can keep the standard spin and rinse settings.

Wash at or Below 85 Degrees Fahrenheit, Permanent Press Cycle

Washtub icon with one dot

Stock Fabric Washing Care Symbol Vector And Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Resized from original and added to a white background

The dot represents the highest temperature you can use when washing. A second dot raises the maximum temperature by 20 degrees Fahrenheit. A third dot represents a 15-degree jump, although you revert to adding 20 for the fourth and fifth dot. 

When you see five dots inside the washtub icon, it means 160 degrees Fahrenheit is the maximum temperature you can use when machine-washing the item.

Moreover, the single bar underneath signifies a permanent press cycle. Set the dryer to a gentle cycle when you see two bars.

Wash at or Below 200 Degrees Fahrenheit

Washtub icon with six dots

Stock Washing Apparel Symbol.ai Vector Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Resized from original and added to a white background

The washtub icon with six dots is a go-ahead signal to dial your washer water temperature up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit to remove persistent stains without damaging the fabric.

Wash at or Below 95 Degrees Celsius

Washtub icon with the number 95

Laundry symbol wash 95” by NielsB is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 / Resized from original and added to a white background

This label is the equivalent of the six-dot hot wash symbol in places where the metric system is the norm. You may see a washing symbol with a number if you bought a shirt from Europe.

Hand Wash, Normal

A hand reaching into a washtub

Laundry symbol hand wash” by Amada44 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 / Resized from original and added to a white background

Any garment bearing this label is prone to snagging or shrinking when machine-washed, so use your hands to clean them. If you must use your washer, put your delicate item in a gentle washing cycle with lukewarm water.

A twisted symbol almost always accompanies the hand wash icon, which means you can wring the apparel. If the wrapped hard candy-like symbol has an X through it, gently squeeze the water out of it instead of twisting it.

Do Not Wash

Washtub crossed out

Stock Do Not Wash Symbol.ai Vector Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Cropped and resized from original and added to a white background

Never wash any item with this label on the tag — be it by hand or in the machine. Its fabric may be too delicate, its dye may be unstable, or water may ruin its design elements.

Use Non-Chlorine Bleach

A triangle with two parallel diagonal lines

Stock Bleach Non-chlorine Symbol Vector Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Cropped and resized from original and added to a white background

This symbol is common in colored garments. Chlorine is a stellar stain remover on white clothes and a remarkable sanitizer. However, it can cause discoloration on non-white items.

If you need to remove wine spatter on a colored piece, go with a color-safe solution or any chlorine-less product.

Triangle is exclusive to bleaching labels. You may see an empty triangle or one with an X through it. The former means no chemical restriction, whereas the latter implies no bleaching.

The Meaning of Drying Symbols

Most drying-related laundry labels are square. They can have various other details, making them tricky to read.

Tumble Dry, Low Heat

A dot inside a circle inside a square

Stock Clothing Care Symbol.ai Vector Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Cropped and resized from original and added to a white background

This icon means the garment lends itself to tumble drying. The single dot means you should choose the low heat setting. You can encounter the same symbol with two or three dots, indicating medium or high heat, respectively.

Tumble Dry, No Heat

A black circle inside a square

Stock Tumble Dry No Heat Symbol Vector Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Resized from original and added to a white background

Found only in North America, this symbol means the item is tumble dry-safe but may get damaged due to heat. Setting your dryer to “tumble dry no heat” tells it to use room temperature air, which can get the job done but longer.

Do Not Tumble Dry

A circle inside a square crossed out

Stock Apparel Symbol In Format Vector Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Cropped and resized from original and added to a white background

If you see this icon, keep your garment away from the dryer and hang it to dry. Adding an extra spin cycle can remove excess water from the item to air-dry it more quickly.

Line Dry

A curved line inside a square forming an envelop-like image

Stock Line Dry Symbol.ai Vector Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Resized from original and added to a white background

In the United States and Canada, this is the symbol for hanging clothes to dry — even in direct sunlight. Ensure the item is damp and not dripping wet so you may wring it first.

In Europe, the label for this care instruction is below.

A straight line inside a square

Сушка в вертикальном положении” by Quicktotal is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 / Resized from original and added to a white background

Dry in the Shade

Two parallel diagonal lines in the top-left corner of a square

Stock Dry In Shade Symbol.ai Vector Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Resized from original and added to a white background

This icon means you should hide the garment from the sun when hung. The molecular bond between fabric fibers and dye pigments is bound to erode when exposed to ultraviolet light, so follow this drying recommendation to keep your item vibrant.

Drip Dry

Three straight lines inside a square

Stock Drip Dry Apparel Symbol Vector Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Resized from original and added to a white background

This symbol is typical among bedsheets, blankets and other large items susceptible to wrinkling because of wringing. It may take them forever to dry since they’re soaked, but you can use the sun to speed up evaporation.

Dry Clean, Any Solvent

The letter A in uppercase inside a circle

Laundry symbol dry clean any solvent” by Fvasconcellos is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 / Resized from original and added to a white background

This label pertains to garments you can dry-clean without worrying about solvent restrictions, which is neat when you’re desperate for a remover of stubborn stains — such as oil-based paint and grease.

The Meaning of Ironing Symbols

Most laundry symbols have cryptic meanings, but ironing labels are the exception. Although they use charcoal iron as an icon, which has been obsolete since the 1880s, they remain recognizable since modern electric irons still resemble them.

Iron, Low Temperature

A dot inside an iron icon

Stock Symbol For Apparel.ai Vector Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Resized from original and added to a white background

As with other symbols, the single dot in ironing icons means setting your dry iron to the lowest temperature setting or not exceeding 230 degrees Fahrenheit. It generally applies to acetate and nylon.

Two dots refer to medium temperature or 300 degrees Fahrenheit max — the right setting for fabrics like wool, silk, polyester and lace. Three dots mean high temperature, which is perfect for denim, linen and cotton that can handle temperatures up to 390 degrees Fahrenheit.

Do Not Iron

Iron icon crossed out

Stock Apparel Care Pictogram Vector Icon” by Vectorportal is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / Resized from original and added to a white background

This label means you must keep your item as far away from an iron as possible. Ignoring it is a surefire way to damage your garment irreversibly.

Uncovering the Meaning of More Laundry Symbols

Understanding apparel care labels is easy once you learn the logic behind their symbolism. There’s still a laundry list of icons that didn’t make this article, so stay tuned for updates on this living document.


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