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Cracking the Laundry Care Code

I recently bought some new shirts and last night, before washing them for the first time, I took a peek at their care instructions. I always do this prior to laundering anything new so I do not do anything that can harm my new duds. Proper laundry care is a must!

This is what one of the labels looked like:

laundry care label

Clothing care labels provide instructions for the proper care of your clothes to help you keep them looking their best for as long as possible. (Photo source: Samantha Kennedy, UF/IFAS Extension)

As I looked at all the labels, I was reminded once again that doing the laundry can be more complicated than simply throwing clothes in the washing machine, adding detergent, turning on the machine, and walking away. (I learned this lesson the hard way after I ruined a brand new blouse in the washing machine when it was supposed to be dry cleaned only.)

Care labels contain both written and symbolic instructions. Sure, I can read the written instructions and am fairly good at following directions, but what the heck do all those symbols mean? So I decided to look them up. After all, I did not study hieroglyphics and I wanted to be sure I treated my new clothes right.

Turns out, there are a LOT of laundry care symbols. And if you are anything like me, I know what very few of them actually mean.  With that in mind, here is a comprehensive chart of the symbols you may find on your clothing care labels:

chart of laundry care symbols

These laundry care symbols are standardized across the United States. and are required to be added to clothing care labels by the Federal Trade Commission, as appropriate. (Photo source: Miami University)

(Ctrl + click on the chart to open a larger version of it in a new tab.)

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) actually regulates the use of these symbols in order to ensure standardization across the clothing industry. Certain types of apparel are excluded from having to use these symbols, such as hats, shoes, gloves, handkerchiefs, suspenders, neckties, and belts.

According to the FTC, all care labels must include instructions for washing and/or dry cleaning a particular item. There are five elements of washing:

  • Washing by hand or by machine
  • Bleaching
  • Drying
  • Ironing
  • Other warnings (e.g. wash with like colors, wash separately, etc.)

In the sample label above (click here for a larger version), the symbols, from left to right, stand for machine wash below 80 degrees F (30 degrees C), do not bleach, tumble dry low heat, iron on low temperature, and do not dry clean.

I know it seems like the laundry is never done, and who has the time to follow all the specific care instructions, right? Believe me, I understand. And it is not realistic to wash every piece of clothing according to its specific instructions. However, taking the time to look at the care labels and familiarizing yourself with the most common symbols can help you avoid ruining perfect good clothes by doing something that can damage the fabric.

For a downloadable laundry care symbols chart, here is a nice one from the University of Tennessee Extension Service.

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