Laundry symbols explained – an expert guide to what they mean

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

Laundry symbols on clothing label
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Laundry symbols may look like another language, but they are there to help you get great results when washing your clothes. They are also mostly universal, having been used in the US since the 1970s, and even longer in the UK. 

We are all guilty of glancing at the label too quickly, putting a garment in the wash at 85F and hoping for the best, or totally forgetting the label with disastrous consequences. 

Make doing laundry easy with our comprehensive guide on laundry symbols below, backed up by industry experts.

Laundry symbols: explained

To help demystify labels quickly, we have divided them up into symbols specific to washing, temperature, cycle types, bleaching, drying and ironing.

laundry symbols with meaning

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Washing symbols

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.’

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

A tub icon with a hand indicates an item should be hand washed.

A tub icon with cross through it means do not wash.

A circle indicates dry clean only.

A circle with a cross through it means do not dry clean.

Ecover Wool & Silk Delicate Laundry Detergent | $15.88 at Walmart

Ecover Wool & Silk Delicate Laundry Detergent | $15.88 at Walmart
If you find that your item is hand-wash only, we can personally recommend Ecover's delicate laundry detergent. Mix a small amount with warm water in the bathtub or sink, massage into the fabric and rinse after 30 minutes.

Washing temperature symbols

Washing symbols

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Sometimes the temperature will be shown within the diagram, but otherwise, the machine wash temperature symbols are identified by dots:

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

Two dots indicate a warm wash temperature of 105ºF (40ºC).

Three dots show a warm/hot wash of 120ºF (50ºC).

Four dots mean a hot 140ºF (60ºC) wash.

Five dots indicate a sanitizing 160ºF (70ºC) wash.

Washing machine cycles

laundry symbols for washing

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If the label shows just the tub icon with the wavy line, use a normal cycle for the item in question.

If the tub icon has a horizontal line below, use the permanent press cycle.

Two horizontal lines below the tub with a wavy line icon? Use a delicate or gentle cycle.

Drying symbols

Drying symbols

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It's important to know what the laundry symbols mean when using the dryer, including that for the delicate setting on a dryer.

A square with a circle within it shows an item can go in the dryer.

If there’s a single line under this symbol, this indicates permanent press

Two lines below mean delicate or gentle.

A square with a circle within it with a cross over it means do not tumble dry.

A square with a curved line within it at the top which goes from one side to the other indicates an item should be line dried or hung to dry.

A square with three vertical lines inside shows you should drip dry.

A square with a single horizontal line inside indicates dry flat.

Drying temperature symbols

A tumble dry symbol with the circle filled in shows no heat should be used.

If the tumble dry symbol has one dot in the center, this indicates a low heat setting (explained in the tumble dryer temperature guide) should be used.

Two dots mean medium heat.

Three dots and you can use a high temperature.

Bleaching symbols

Bleaching symbols

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If you want to use bleach in laundry, check for the bleach laundry symbols beforehand.

Bleaching symbols

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

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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.

Ironing 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.

Small utility and boot room by John Lewis of Hungerford

(Image credit: John Lewis of Hungerford)


What does a circle with a cross mean on clothes?

A circle with a cross on clothes shows that the item should not be dry cleaned. 

Conversely, if an item can be dry cleaned, there’s a circle icon. 

A circle – dry clean – symbol may have a letter of the alphabet within it. ‘Commonly misunderstood icons are typically relating to dry clean only garments,’ says Jonathon Reckles. ‘These tend to have information about which solvents are best for that garment, which can be slightly confusing because they’re letters versus laundry-looking icons.’

Dry cleaning symbols

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What is the no washing machine symbol?

The no washing machine symbol is actually the no wash symbol, in other words the tub with a wavy line with a cross over it. You might come across it if you’re planning to wash stuffed animals as well as when you’re laundering clothes and linens.

‘If the garment or other piece can be hand washed but just not put in the machine, it will have the tub plus hand icon that shows hand washing is possible,’ explains Lucy Searle, editor in chief of Homes & Gardens.

Not sure what you should do with a particular item? ‘When in doubt a good professional cleaner can help you determine the best way to clean, including dry cleaning alternatives like wet cleaning for more difficult and less common fabrics,’ says Jonathon Reckles.

Laundry symbols

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Lucy Searle
Lucy Searle

Lucy Searle has written about interiors, property and gardens for over 30 years, starting within the interiors departments of women's magazines before switching to interiors-only titles in the mid-1990s. She was asked to repeat that success at Homes & Gardens, where she took on the editorship of the magazine, which is the UK's oldest interiors magazine at 103 years old. Lucy is a serial renovator and also owns rental properties in the UK and Europe, so she brings first-hand knowledge to the subjects she oversees.

For the best results, cleaning your washing machine every 6 months and don't delay in replacing your washing machine when the time comes. The best washing machines on the market will ensure your family's clothes are cleaned properly, as long as you follow the label.

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