How to Decipher Confusing Labels on Your Clothes

The first time you wash a new garment, you can go there with the best of intentions – lay it on a flat surface to dry, or wash it at a specific temperature. That is, if you can decipher the care label.

While some clothing labels have written instructions such as dry cleaning only, others only have a set of characters that look like some sort of secret code. So maybe instead of washing this shirt according to the instructions on the label, you just put it in the washing machine along with everything else.

But Wayne Edelman, CEO of Meurice Garment Care, also known as “Stainmaster”, thinks this is a bad idea. “Care labels, while not always correct, give the consumer advice on how to wash, dry and iron most things,” he tells Lifehacker.

Luckily, Edelman has put together a garment care label decoding guide to help us know exactly what to do. Here’s what you need to know.

Why care labels should not be ignored

First, here is Edelman with some backstory:

Reading care labels is important because doing the right washing and drying procedures will extend the life of your clothes and household items. Washing a silk item according to the wash profile of cotton towels can cause permanent damage to the item, as can an item marked “dry clean only”. If you put something “hanging only” in the dryer, you will most likely ruin the item.

How to decipher garment care labels

Edelman’s guidelines are quite extensive , so right now here are some examples of garment care label symbols and their meanings:

Water temperature

  1. Wash in cold water (80º)
  2. Wash warm (105º)
  3. Wash hot (120º)

If there are additional points, four means 140 °, five means 160 °, and six means 200 °.

Washing instructions

  1. Machine wash
  2. Handwash only
  3. Not mine
  4. Dry clean only
  5. Do not dry clean

These instructions tell you what type of wash is required and if the item can be machine washed.

Drying instructions

  1. Machine dry allowed
  2. Do not tumble dry
  3. Hang to dry
  4. Lay to dry
  5. Do not wring out

Cycle type

  1. Normal cycle
  2. Constant press
  3. Delicate cycle

Although these instructions apply to washers and dryers, some dryers do not have these options. In this case, Edelman advises “to think of normal as strong heat, constant pressing as medium heat, and delicate as weak.”


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