A Complete Guide to Laundry Care Symbols and Their Meanings

A father and son doing laundry together and checking clothing care symbols.

As a lover of high-quality linens, it’s important to know how to care for them properly. One of the first steps in doing that is understanding the laundry care symbols on the tags of your linens. While clothing care symbols may seem intimidating or confusing at first, with some guidance, they’re quite easy to interpret.

The symbol system makes it easy to understand your wash care label. It enables you to confidently use all of your washing machine settings without damaging or compromising the quality of your clothing.

So let's get started! By the time you've reviewed these most common care label symbols, your fabric care expertise will be as sharp as your wardrobe.

The most common laundry care symbols

Here are some brief descriptions for each laundry care symbol you may encounter on your home decor linens or clothing item tags:

Machine wash cold

Machine wash cold is perfect for garments made from polyester or nylon, or those that recommend being washed in cold water to preserve colors and prevent shrinkage. Apart from this, it also saves energy and is gentler on clothes.

Machine wash warm

Most clothing items made of cotton are best washed in warm water, especially if they're heavily soiled. Warm water can help to remove stains more effectively, leaving your clothes looking and smelling fresh.

Machine wash hot

The machine wash hot symbol is the best bet for towels, sweatshirts, and jeans, which can hold bacteria. Avoid hot water if your garment is made from wool, silk, or decorated with iron-on patches.

Machine wash (permanent press)

As you can see, one line below the washing basin symbol indicates that you should wash the item on the "permanent press" setting on your machine. A permanent press setting is best for cotton, linen, or rayon materials that tend to wrinkle. Opting for cold water instead of a hot cycle might be helpful to prevent shrinkage in permanent press clothes.

Machine wash (delicate)

Three lines on your care label means you should use the delicate option when washing your linens. Machine washing on a delicate cycle with hot water works well for finer fabrics that could be damaged in the dryer, including lingerie, hosiery, and silks. Use mild detergent to prevent damaging your pieces with enzymes and brighteners.

Hand wash

Hand washing is the best option for delicate materials such as wool, cashmere, and silk, which could be ruined by rough treatment in the washing machine. Handwashing will help protect delicate fabrics from stretching and tangling.

Do not wash

Some garments like leather, fur, or luxury pillows should not be washed. In this case, spot cleaning is preferable and, if necessary, professional cleaning. You can also get an at-home cleaning kit for your linens or clothes that won't damage them in the same way that water, movement, or heat from a washer will.

Do not bleach

When your label displays a triangle with an "X" crossed through it, you know to hold back on using bleach. Bleaching can damage a garment's fabric and cause discoloration. If you are dealing with a tough stain, try alternative methods like a combination of vinegar or hydrogen peroxide.

Tumble dry low

The tumble dry low symbol consists of a circle with a singular dot in the middle of it. Tumble dry low is best for clothes made of cotton, linen, spandex, and polyester, which are more prone to wrinkling and require gentler drying. Also, avoid overdrying clothes; it can lead to shrinkage and roughening.

Tumble dry normal

As you'd expect, tumble dry normal has one additional dot in the middle of the circle. Items like jeans, towels, and sweatshirts are typically safe to tumble dry on a regular setting, but avoid them if you're dealing with any wool or silk items.

Tumble dry high

For the highest dryer setting, you'll find three dots placed in the middle of a circle. Tumble drying on high heat can be harsh on clothes and may cause shrinkage or damage to synthetic items, like nylon or polyester. Therefore, it's best to avoid using this setting altogether unless it's crucial.

Do not tumble dry

Some items like bras, leather, and delicate fabrics like silk should never be tumble dried. Always check the label, and if a garment cannot be tumbled dried, air-dry it instead.

Iron low heat

Ironing on a low-heat setting is great for synthetic fabrics, such as rayon, and delicate materials, such as silk. Also, use a pressing cloth when ironing to prevent any marks or burns on the fabric. What is a comfort set without fine luxury accents and fabrics? If you have any details that can't withstand high heat, this setting is best for you.

Iron medium heat

Ironing on medium-heat settings can work fine for most materials, such as cotton, linen or wool. However, when ironing polyester or nylon, be cautious since they can melt.

Iron high heat

Some types of denim or cotton items may require ironing on high-heat settings. However, avoid using this setting for any synthetic materials. Additionally, be sure to use the appropriate ironing board surface and steam setting.

Do not iron

Do not iron items that cannot withstand heat, such as leather, suede, or wool.  Quilt sets often have this symbol as well, depending on their material. Instead, use a steamer to remove wrinkles or take the garment to a professional cleaner for pressing.

Steamers don't introduce heat directly to the linen or garment, which helps to preserve the material for longer.

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What does the triangle symbol mean for laundry?

The triangle symbol on a laundry care label indicates that the item can be bleached. If the item is completely white or has no color variation, it can be bleached using chlorine or oxygen bleach. If the item has a color, use non-chlorine bleach instead.

What does 'dry flat' mean on a clothing tag?

If you see the “dry flat” care symbol on your tag, it means that you should reshape the item while it’s damp and let it dry on a flat surface. This is typically used for items that are prone to losing their shape if hung up, such as wool sweaters or knit blankets.

How do I dry clean clothes at home?

Some linens may need to be dry cleaned instead of washed. For example, you may be wondering how to wash a comforter with a “no wash” symbol on it, which likely means that dry cleaning is the best approach. 

Follow these steps if you don’t want to take your linens into a professional:

  1. Find a dry cleaning kit, which should contain a fabric pretreatment and a dryer-activated cloth
  2. Put your linens in the dryer-activated cloth and add the pretreatment solution
  3. Toss the cloth in the dryer with the linens for about 30 minutes
  4. Remove the linens and hang them up

Pro tip: Always read the instructions on your dry cleaning kit and follow them closely. This will avoid any mishaps that may harm your clothing or linens.

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Final thoughts: using caring symbols for laundry

Always read your garment care label so you know the best way to care for each item in your wardrobe — whether that's machine washing on a gentle cycle or hand washing with cold water. 

Caring for your linens and garments properly will help them last longer and look better.

You can trust that Southshore Fine Linens products are of the highest quality and easy to care for.

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