Clothing care labels & symbols

Updated March 23, 2017

In every piece of clothing, the garment care tag tells the wearer exactly how to take care of her apparel. Written with symbols or words, the garment care label lists the fabric composition, wash and dry temperature and best cleaning method. People notice what's on these labels and try to follow them closely. According to Cleaning 101, "According to a recent study, four out of five consumers read care labels before they buy clothing and follow label instructions when washing garments."


Cleaning label symbols are standardised across the apparel industry. Developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), the symbols were created to be clear and precise to the run-of-the-mill consumer. As of 1997, manufacturers could use either words, symbols or a combination of both.

According to label manufacturer Paxar, "In 1972, the Federal Trade Commission introduced the Care Labeling Rule which ... required manufacturers to label their clothing with instructions for at least one safe cleaning method for the garment. From this time on, it would be considered unfair and deceptive for manufacturers or importers to sell items without care labels." Labelling gave consumers the power to choose where their clothing was coming from, offered consumer protection and increased the likelihood that garments would last for longer periods of time.


A garment label will always list a cleaning and drying method. For most consumers, these options come down to about eleven different symbols. However, the complete list of cleaning symbols includes signs for bleaching, agitation and other specific procedures.

For word labels, the instructions will usually be listed in English and another common language such as French or Spanish. Brands that have far international reach, or wish to market themselves as such, may have five or six languages on their labels.


The common washing symbol is a washtub with water. The amount of dots in the washtub denote the water temperature, with more dots meaning hotter water. A hand in the washtub means hand wash.

Tumble drying is a circle within a square. Dots also symbolise temperature, with a grey or filled circle standing for a no heat dry. The hang dry symbol look like an envelope with a curved lip, rather than a point.

Dry clean is a circle, and can include symbols that are only important to a professional dry cleaner. These days, most dry clean only garments simply say "Dry Clean Only."


The benefits of these cleaning labels are many. Some people don't wish to purchase dry clean only garments, not wanting to spend money on regular cleaning services. Others may not want to put up with hand washing or special care fabrics. Still others wish to know the best way to care for a favourite new purchase.

The care labels also safeguard manufacturers and stores by reducing the number of returns from shrinkage, disintegration and damage. Stores often don't take back garments that are laundered, yet consumers can feel duped if they carefully care for a purchase only to see it damaged through ignorance. Garment care labels make the purchase process more foolproof for everyone involved in the transaction.


Even though a garment label may instruct the wearer to wash in a certain way, it's still good to read up on proper fabric care. Labels can be mistaken, placed on the wrong garment or erased after multiple wash cycles. Even if the label says to iron something on high heat, that may not be wise for an inexperienced ironer. Always read the labels to set the foundation for proper garment care but trust your better judgment to keep your garments flawless.

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About the Author

Gigi Starr is a freelance fashion writer. She previously served as the blog editor for a major online fashion blog and has more than a decade of backstage experience in the beauty and high fashion industries. She has worked for businesses like an internationally renowned theatrical touring company and events such as the Mercedes-Benz N.Y.C. Fashion Week.