What Do the Symbols on Clothing Tags Mean?

We all know the feeling. You're about to wash a new shirt, so you look at the tag for instructions. Then you remember — tags are covered in incomprehensible hieroglyphics, possibly from ancient Egypt. What are the symbols trying to say? Can you ever truly know? Well, yes, but you need a glossary.

Clothing Care Symbols, Explained

There's actually some reasoning behind this weird symbol system. The idea is that once you learn the symbols, you can theoretically use them to wash clothing from any country even if you don't speak the language — though international symbols do differ slightly from American ones. The good news is that the symbols aren't as confusing as they seem. There's an internal logic. You'll see.


Washing symbols look like a bucket of water. So far, so intuitive. Sometimes there are dots in the water — these are a measure of the ideal water temperature. (Rhyming mnemonic: More dots, more hot ... s.) Specifically:

  • One dot means you should wash the garment at 30 degrees Celsius, or roughly 85 degrees Fahrenheit. If your machine doesn't measure in degrees, then just go for the "cold water" setting.
  • Two dots means 40 degrees Celsius, or 100 degrees Fahrenheit; aka "warm."
  • Three dots means 50 degrees Celsius, or 120 degrees Fahrenheit; aka "hot."
  • ... and so on, up to six dots.

Another common symbol is a bucket of water with a disembodied hand in it. This means you should hand-wash the garment; it doesn't mean you should sever your hand and throw it in your washing machine.

If you see a bucket of water with an x through it, that means the garment can't be washed — it's dry clean only.


Bleaching symbols are triangle shaped. There is no rhyme or reason for this that we can think of, but the emptier the triangle, the easier your garment is to bleach. This, at least, makes sense. So:

  • The fully blank triangle means bleach as needed.
  • The triangle with two parallel lines means only use non-chlorine bleach.
  • The triangle with an x through it means that bleach is strictly forbidden.


The ironing symbol just looks like an iron. It's the only care symbol you truly can't mess up. Again, dots tell you the ideal temperature here.

  • One dot means iron this garment on low.
  • Two dots mean iron on medium.
  • Three dots mean iron on high.
  • An iron with an x through it means do not iron.
  • An iron with an x through it and diagonal lines coming out of the bottom means don't iron with steam.


The typical drying symbol is a circle inside a square, which basically looks like a dryer. Sometimes, the ideal dryer setting is indicated with lines below the dryer.

  • One underline means you should dry the garment on permanent press.
  • Two underlines mean it should be dried on delicate.

Sometimes, instead of an underline, the drying symbol features the temperature dots you'll remember from the washing section. (This is not the last time we will see these dots.) In a drying setting:

  • One dot means tumble dry this garment on low.
  • Two dots mean tumble dry on medium.
  • Three dots mean tumble dry on high.
  • A dryer symbol with a filled-in circle means dry with no heat.
  • A dryer symbol with an x through it means air dry.

Sometimes the air-drying technique gets more specific, though.

  • A square envelope symbol means line dry. Think of it as a round sheet hanging on a clothesline.
  • A square with three vertical lines means drip dry. The lines are dripping water. Just go with it.
  • A square with a horizontal line in the middle means lay flat to dry. It sort of looks like a drying rack as seen through a window — but it really more resembles a worm in a cage.

Dry Cleaning

Last but not least, dry cleaning! Usually, you'd take this garment to a professional who knows this stuff inside and out, but just in case: A circle means "dry clean." A letter inside indicates what type of solvent the garment needs.

  • No letter or an "A" means any type of solvent works.
  • "P" means any type of solvent works. (The "P" stands for "perchloroethylene," a widely used solvent.)
  • "F" means petroleum solvent only. (The "F" stands for "flammable.")
  • A circle with a diagonal line on the outside means dry clean with no steam.
  • A circle with an x through it means — say it with us, now — do not dry clean.

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For a hilarious (but seriously useful) take on how to clean almost anything, check out "My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag . . . and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha" by Jolie Kerr, author of the column "Ask a Clean Person."We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice October 12, 2018

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