Laundry symbols explained – demystifying the language of laundry

All the laundry symbols explained at a glance so you can get the best results and avoid any laundry day disasters

Laundry symbols on clothing label
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Laundry symbols may look like another language, but they are there to help you get great results every time when washing your clothes and prolong their lifespan.

While it can be tempting to ignore them and throw everything in together when doing laundry, these symbols are there for a reason, often not protected from unexpected shrinking or damage to a garment or your machine.

If you are left stumped by the sheer variety of symbols on your garment care label, this guide can help to break things down step by step – from washing to drying to ironing – so your clothes can always look as good as they did off of the rack. 

Laundry symbols: explained

A blue document with black laundry symbols on it

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Always check the label to save you headaches. Jonathon Reckles, VP at CD One Price Cleaners explains that ‘the biggest risk to garments when the care label isn’t followed is to that garment and potentially others in the same load. Common results would include distortion, shrinkage, and color loss. 

'Color loss can cause bleeding onto other garments, such as the classic white load and red sock causing everything to be pink.’

To help demystify labels quickly, we have divided them up into symbols specific to washing, temperature, dry cleaning, during, bleaching, and ironing:

Washing Symbols

laundry symbols for washing

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The most basic and important laundry symbols to know are the basic washing instructions. These will usually tell you whether or not something can be washed in our washing machine, and which setting to use.  

A tub icon with cross through it means do not wash. This is usually found on delicate items and some homewares such as curtains and drapes.

A tub icon with a wavy line means an item can be machine-washed as normal.

A tub icon with a hand indicates an item should be hand washed. Some of the best washing machines have a hand wash setting that you can use for this if you like, to save you time hand-washing clothes at your sink. 

A tub with a single horizontal line below it indicates that you need to use a permanent press cycle. This is a setting on some washing machines specifically designed to limit wrinkles on fabrics that you might not be able to iron. 

A tub icon with two horizontal lines below indicates a delicate or gentle cycle is needed, usually for delicate fabrics and smaller clothing items that might be damaged or snagged when agitated too roughly. 

Washing Temperature Symbols

laundry symbols created with Canva

(Image credit: Future)

The next most important symbol to understand is the washing temperature guide. This can be displayed in two ways, either by a tub with a written temperature inside of it, or a tub with varying numbers of dots. Knowing what temperature to wash dark clothes to preserve colors, or what temperature to wash natural fibers to preserve size and shape is vital to preventing damaged clothes. 

A tub icon with a number inside of it will often tell you the exact temperature to wash the clothes at to prevent damage. 

A tub with a single dot inside indicates an item should be washed cold at 85ºF (30ºC).

A tub with two dots indicates a warm wash temperature of 105ºF (40ºC).

A tub with three dots shows a warm/hot wash of 120ºF (50ºC).

A tub with four dots means a hot 140ºF (60ºC) wash.

A tub with five dots indicates a sanitizing 160ºF (70ºC) wash.

Dry Cleaning Symbols

dry cleaning cymbols

(Image credit: Future)

Not all garments can be washed at home in your washing machine. Some items with delicate or natural fabrics may require dry cleaning to preserve the shape, size, color, or texture. 

If the care label doesn't have awashing tub icon, but does have an empty circle, the garment needs to be professionally dry cleaned. You can dry clean clothes at home if you have the right equipment, but it sometimes best left to the experts if you are unsure. 

On the other hand, a circle with a cross through it should never be dry cleaned, as the chemicals used in the process could be equally damaging. 

Drying Symbols

Drying symbols

(Image credit: Alamy)

It's important to know what the laundry symbols mean when using the dryer, including familiarizing yourself with the tumble dryer temperature guide, as this is where many clothes are damaged the most. Unfortunately, there are also more drying symbols to get your head around than any other step in the laundry process. 

A circle in a square with a cross through it means you cannot tumble-dry the item 

A filled-in circle in a square means you can tumble dry the item but with no heat 

A twisted rectangle means you can wring the wet item out, while a cross through a twisted rectangle dissuades you from wringing the item out in case it causes stretching. 

A circle in a square means you can tumble dry as normal

A single dot in a circle in a square suggests dry on low heat, two dots mean dry on medium, and three dots mean dry on high. 

A square with a single, horizontal line inside means you should dry the item laying flat. This is most commonly found on natural fiber garments such as wool. 

A square with three verticle lines suggests you should drip dry the garment. This is usually for items you cannot tumble dry or wring out. 

A square with a half circle at the top means you should hang the item to dry. Line drying clothing in this way has several benefits, from making laundry smell better to saving you money at home

A square with two lines slanted in the top left-hand corner suggests that you should dry these items in a shady area to prevent sun damage and fading. These slanted lines can be paired with other drying instructions, such as the horizontal line to suggest drying flat in the shade, or the half-circle to suggest hanging to dry in the shade. 

Bleaching Symbols

Bleaching symbols

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If you want to use bleach in laundry, check for the bleach laundry symbols beforehand. Some dyes and fabrics may have an adverse reaction to bleach if used incorrectly. 

A triangle shows you can use bleach.

A triangle with two angled lines inside indicates non-chlorine bleach should be used.

A cross over the triangle? Do not bleach

Ironing Symbols

Ironing symbols

(Image credit: Alamy)

Ironing is one of the best ways to get wrinkles out of clothes, but not every type of fabric stands up well under direct heat or excessive steam. It’s vital to get the heat right when it comes to ironing as well as for washing and drying. Look out for these laundry symbols.

An iron icon shows an item can be ironed.

If there’s a single dot inside, use low heat.

Two dots mean medium heat.

Three dots and high heat is allowed.

If the iron icon has two sloped vertical lines below that are crossed through, avoid the use of steam.

An iron with a cross over it indicates do not iron.


How do you wash clothes without labels?

If your item does not have a care tag inside with laundry symbols, you might have to make some educated guesses about the best way to wash it. The safest bet would be to run it on a cool, delicate cycle with gentle detergent and no fabric softener. This is the least risky laundry cycle. 

If the garment feels like it is made from natural materials, or has an interesting texture such as velvet, you might want to take it to a cry cleaners where they can advise you on what they think would be best to preserve the fabric.

What are the most important laundry rules? 

The most important laundry rules are to always follow the care label, never overload your washing machine or tumble dryer, and always divide your laundry to prevent color bleeding or fading. 

Following these three essential laundry rules will ensure your garments always look their best and they continue to stand the test of time in your closet. 

For the best results, cleaning your washing machine every six months and don't delay in replacing your washing machine when the time comes. Not only will this prolong the life of your appliance, but will ensure that your clothes come out fresh every time, making the effort you put into understanding their care instructions worth it. 

Sarah Warwick
Contributing Editor

Sarah is a freelance journalist and editor. Previously executive editor of Ideal Home, she’s specialized in interiors, property and gardens for over 20 years, and covers interior design, house design, gardens, and cleaning and organizing a home for H&G. She’s written for websites, including Houzz, Channel 4’s flagship website, 4Homes, and Future’s T3; national newspapers, including The Guardian; and magazines including Future’s Country Homes & Interiors, Homebuilding & Renovating, Period Living, and Style at Home, as well as House Beautiful, Good Homes, Grand Designs, Homes & Antiques, LandLove and The English Home among others. It’s no big surprise that she likes to put what she writes about into practice, and is a serial house renovator. 

With contributions from