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Here's What All Those Laundry and Dry-Cleaning Symbols Actually Mean

Confused by laundry symbols? We can translate. Here's what those garment care symbols really mean

Here's how to decode those laundry symbols on your clothing

When it comes to doing laundry, most of us know not to put a red sock in a load of whites. Also for many of us, that's where our laundry expertise ends. Luckily, most clothing companies leave messages on the tags of our clothing, offering written instructions for the best way to wash. Sometimes, however, these instructions come in the form of visual symbols. A hand, a circle, a bucket of water with a certain number of dots in it, for example.

But what do these symbols mean, exactly?

This handy guide breaks down the most common laundry and dry-clean symbols to help get you started.

In general, laundry symbols follow a simple system:

  • An open, simple symbol generally means "normal." (As in, normal wash cycle, normal dry cycle, or ironing without any special considerations.)
  • An X through the symbol means "do not"! (Do not wash, do not dry clean, etc.)
  • Dots are typically used to signify temperature. The more dots, the hotter the recommended temperature.

Washing Symbols

From left to right:

  1. Machine Wash: It's safe to wash in a normal washing machine cycle.
  2. Hand Wash: This item should NOT go in your washing machine -- it should be washed by hand with clean water and detergent.
  3. Never Wash: This item should not be washed at all. (This goes for high-end items, like certain types of leather and heavy-duty outdoor wear.)
  4. Dry Clean Only: Take this one out of your laundry basket and right to a dry cleaner's!
  5. Do Not Dry Clean: This item will not survive the dry cleaning process. (Pretty self-explanatory, right?)

  1. Normal Cycle: Run your regular washing machine cycle, on all its normal settings.
  2. Permanent Press: This item needs to be go through the laundry on permanent press, a laundry cycle that washes clothes in warm water to remove wrinkles. It is a more gentle cycle than the normal one.
  3. Delicate: This item should only go through delicate cycles, which very gently wash clothes that are at a high risk of getting damaged. (Think things like fishnets, sequins, hand-stitched embroidery, and the like.)
  4. Cool/Cold Temperature: Wash this in cold or cool water (60-80 degrees Fahrenheit).
  5. Warm Temperature: Wash this in warm water (90-110 degrees Fahrenheit).
  6. Hot Temperature: Wash this in hot water (110+ degrees Fahrenheit).

Bleach Symbols

  1. Bleach as needed: Feel free to use bleach on this item whenever you need to remove a pesky stain!
  2. Non-chlorine bleach only: It's safe to bleach this item, but only if you use a bleach that does not contain chlorine. (Chlorine can break down clothing fibers or leave stains on certain fabrics.)
  3. DO NOT bleach: Typically, you'll see this symbol on colorful or dark clothing that bleach would damage.

Dry Cycle Symbols

  1. Tumble dry: It's safe to dry this item on your regular dryer settings!
  2. Permanent press: Like permanent press for washing machines, most dryers have a permanent press setting that is a little gentler than the regular cycle.
  3. Delicate cycle: Similarly, most dryers have a "delicates" setting for items that might rip or snag in a rougher dryer cycle.
  4. Low heat: Dry this item on the lowest possible heat setting (around 125 degrees Fahrenheit).
  5. Medium heat: Dry this item on medium heat (around 130 degrees Fahrenheit).
  6. High heat: It's getting hot in here! Dry this item at the maximum heat setting (around 135 degrees Fahrenheit).
  7. Do not tumble dry: This item can't go in the dryer. You'll usually see this symbol on things like bras and other undergarments, or delicate pieces. Most of the time, if something has a "hand wash only" symbol, it will also have a "do not tumble dry" symbol.

  1. Hang dry: When this item comes out of the washing machine, wring it out so that it is damp, and put it on a hanger to dry.
  2. Dry flat: This item should be laid out on a flat surface (like a table or a laundry horse) to dry.
  3. Drip dry: Hang this item up to dry while it is still dripping wet, so that it holds its shape and does not crease while it dries.
  4. Dry in shade: This item can be hung up or laid out to dry, but it should not dry in direct sunlight. (This is usually to preserve the dye in colorful or dark clothing, and avoid any weird sun stains.)
  5. Do not wring: This item should not be wrung out -- meaning, don't twist it to let all the water out. (This is typically to save fragile garments from ripping, or protect embroidery or other additions from damage.)
  6. Do not dry: This item should not go in a machine dryer. (Most of the time, you'll see this symbol paired with another to suggest a better way to dry it, like drip-drying or drying flat.)

Ironing Symbols

  1. Do not iron: This item is too delicate or contains fabrics that do not respond well to ironing. If there are creases or wrinkles, you'll need an alternate method to get them out.
  2. Iron as needed: You can use an iron on this item with all the normal settings.
  3. Do not steam: You can use a heated iron, but do not use the steam settings while you iron this item.
  4. Low heat: Iron this item on low heat (around 230 degrees Fahrenheit).
  5. Medium heat: Iron this item on medium heat (around 300 degrees Fahrenheit).
  6. High heat: This item can stand up to the iron's highest heat settings! (Around 290 degrees Fahrenheit.)

When it comes to taking care of your clothes, following the cleaning instructions on your clothing tags will help your clothes stay as fresh and new as the day you bought them. Happy laundering!

Resources— Tide, PureWow, The Spruce, Hunker