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Washing
The basic symbol is a tub, with sloping sides, with waves of water in it.

Inside the water is written the temperature it is to be washed at (in Celsius, of course): just the digits, not the °C symbol. The temperature scale may be (was formerly?) also indicated by a range of dots.

Below the tub is a sign for whatever the technical term in laundry circles is for how vigorously you agitate the stuff, I suppose: nothing for "wash as cotton", one bar for "wash as synthetic", two bars for "wash as wool".

Tumble dry
The basic symbol is a circle inscribed within a square.

The heat may be indicated by a range of dots.

Alternatives to tumble drying are indicated by other symbols inside squares: a sag at the top means "line dry", three vertical strokes means "drip dry", one horizontal stroke means "dry flat", shading slashes in one corner mean "dry in shade".

Dry cleaning
The basic symbol is a circle.

The letter inside it indicates the solvent. F = petroleum solvent only; A = any; P = any except trichloroethylene.

Bleach
The basic symbol is a triangle.
Ironing
The basic symbol is a stylized iron.

Inside its body is a number of dots, 1 = cool, 2 = warm, 3 = hot.

Unsuitable
A diagonal cross through any basic symbol means not to do it.


I suppose these are international standards. I started by copying them down from the walls of my launderette (even noding addicts have to do the laundry very occasionally), and have confirmed on an American website that essentially the same ones are used there. These were adopted in Britain in autumn 1997, with changes including the use of temperature numbers instead of dots.

Node Your Laundry

Recently my wife and I had a new baby boy and for one reason or another, it became my job to do the laundry. Unfortunately, though, I kept shrinking all my son's clothes. I was using the hottest water I could, because sometimes they were quite soiled. That was when I decided to learn what the laundry care symbols meant.

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Wash
The symbol for washing instructions is a representation of a tub, or basin, with splashes of water in it. One, two, or three dots within the symbol indicate Cool (up to roughly 30 degrees Celsius), Warm (roughly, from 30 to 40 degrees Celsius), or Hot (again, roughly, 40 to 50 degrees Celsius) water, respectively. (Up to six dots may be used but four or more are likely only to be used by commercial launderers.) Dots are used because most washing machines in use in North America do not enable the operator to set the exact temperature of the water. One or two bars below the symbol indicate Permanent Press or Gentle Cycle settings, respectively. When machine washing is not recommended, a symbol of a hand dipped into the water indicates washing by hand. An X through the tub indicates that the item not be washed; in this case, dry cleaning instructions should be referred to.

Back in 1971, the American Federal Trade Commission introduced the Care Labeling Rule. Its purpose was "to assist customers in making informed purchase decisions, and to enable customers and cleaners to avoid product damage." The general feeling was that it was impolite not to tell people how to clean the clothes they bought. It's been amended and updated a few times: in 1983, among other things, to be more specific regarding what must be included on a care instruction either for dry cleaning or washing; in 1997, to allow that only the symbols need appear on the care label and not a textual description; and in 2000, to clarify what is required of manufacturers and to further define the terms Hot, Warm, and Cold. Despite all these changes, the rule has been a big hit -- it's one of the FTC's most popular rules!

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Bleach
The symbol for bleaching instructions is an equilateral triangle. An unadorned triangle indicates any bleach may be safely used. A triangle with two bars parallel to the left side indicates that only a color-safe or non-chlorine bleach may be safely used. An X through a solid triangle indicates that no bleach of any type, or even laundry detergent containing bleach, be used.

The care labeling system adopted by the FTC was developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials (the ASTM), and is the approved standard in all countries participating in the North American Free Trade Agreement. Most European countries have adopted a system developed by the ISO called GINETEX. Global standardization is a goal of the FTC, but it has some issues with GINETEX regarding the order of the symbols (GINETEX orders ironing before drying, which is a bit of a head-scratcher) and that they've gone and trademarked their system. Some other countries that have instituted similar care labeling systems are Canada, Japan, and the U.K. The usage of redundant coloring makes Canada's system different; not only are Do Not symbols struck through with an X, they're also red. (Canada is part of NAFTA anyway, and so I don't why they've bothered.) The Japanese symbols sport a bit of a manga look and contain text. Care instructions aren't mandatory in the U.K., they're just strongly encouraged.

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Dry
The symbol for drying instructions is a square. A circle inside the square refers to tumble drying. A solid circle indicates No Heat; one, two, or three dots indicate Low, Medium, or High Heat, respectively. One or two bars below the square indicate Permanent Press or Gentle Cycle settings, respectively. When tumble drying is not recommended, a curved line between the top corners of the square indicates line drying, three vertical parallel bars inside the square indicate drip drying, and one horizontal line inside the square indicates drying flat. An X through the square indicates that the item not be tumble dried.

The obvious way that a consumer benefits from these symbols is that he or she can tell once he or she deciphers the care label on his or her shirt that washing it in hot water might damage it. These care labels protect them in another way, though: the garment manufacturer has to have proof that the care symbols they put on their clothing represent the harshest requirements for safe laundering. A manufacturer cannot just arbitrarily use the very safe Hand Wash, Do Not Bleach, Dry Flat, Do Not Iron, and Do Not dry clean designations without testing that the materials and fabrics used will not suffer damage if laundered with more rigor. I am suspicious of one of my baby's plastic bibs that is so labeled. Should I believe that the plastic bib, which is going to outlast me and my offspring for several generations, would suffer if placed in the clutches of a merciless washing machine?

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Iron
The symbol for ironing instructions is a graphic of an iron. One, two, or three dots indicate Low, Medium, or High Heat, respectively. An X through the representation of jets of steam emitting from the bottom of the graphic of the iron indicates that ironing with steam is not recommended. An X through the entire graphic of the iron indicates that the item not be ironed.

The FTC's studies have shown that how an article of clothing should be cared for is one of the major factors consumers base their decisions on whether to purchase it. The problem with using symbols to provide this information is that consumers have to learn what the symbols mean before they can be helpful. This is why the FTC still permits the use of text-only descriptions instead of the symbols, even though the symbols are very specific and can be understood by people who don't read English. Charts explaining the symbols are easy to find on the Internet. Some text is still necessary, though; the current set of symbols doesn't depict instructions like Wash Before First Use or Wash with Like Colors -- even though there are more than 60 combinations and permutations of them!

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Dry clean
The symbol for dry cleaning instructions is a circle. Occasionally, and only of use to professional dry cleaners, letters may appear within the circle to assist dry cleaners in determining which chemical solvents can be safely used, and bars may appear around the circle to indicate instructions like Reduce Moisture (bar on top left), No Steam Finishing (top right), Low Heat (bottom right), and Short Cycle (bottom left). An X through the circle indicates that the item not be dry cleaned.

Several people have pointed out to me that I might not be shrinking my son's clothes at all. The suggestion is that he's outgrowing them. Sure, he's getting bigger, but I don't believe a word of what they say. After all, Machine Wash Warm.

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"Trade Regulation Rule on Care Labeling of Textile Wearing Apparel and Certain Piece Goods", United States Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/fedrgstr/EPA-IMPACT/2000/August/Day- 02/i19491.htm. May 27, 2002.
"Care Labels: A Guide to Using Care Label Symbols", Paxar. http://www.paxar.com/carelabel/. May 27, 2002.
Gillian Clayton. Care Labelling, Pressing Instructions and the Consumer. http://www.gillianclayton.co.uk/dissertation/. May 27, 2002.

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