The Ultimate Guide to USA Clothes Washing Symbols

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The Ultimate Guide to USA Clothes Washing Symbols

Different garments require different cleaning instructions. When it’s a simple wash and dry, it’s easy. But there are other more confusing instructions that we need to understand. And unfortunately, those instructions are usually given in pictures.

How are we supposed to know what that cup of water with a dot in it means? Or what about the triangle with the stripes in it?

It all gets so confusing when we’re just trying to get our clothes clean. Sure we could take it to the dry cleaner and have them deal with it, but it’s often expensive and not realistic with a monthly budget. Additionally, they may not be able to help on items that can’t be dry cleaned!

We’re here to end the clothes washing symbol confusion once and for all. 

Note: these are for US clothes washing symbols only. Keep in mind that fonts and styles may vary when deciphering what these images are trying to tell us.

Machine Wash, Normal

The normal machine wash symbol, which looks like a cup of water, is perhaps the most identifiable symbol (besides “dry clean only” which we’ll get to later).

We see this the most often because usually, clothes can be washed normally with regular store brand detergent (like Tide or Downy) in a machine with no issue. It’s the most common type of clothing there is.

If you see this symbol, you’ll know to wash it regularly like you would your other clothes.

Machine Wash Permanent Press

A machine wash normal symbol with a line at the bottom means to wash on the permanent press setting.

These garments were made to keep wrinkles out, so this setting will help keep clothes wrinkle-free.

Use the same store bought soap and temperature as you would a regular wash.

Machine Wash Delicate

Two lines at the bottom of the washing machine symbol mean to wash it in a delicate setting. These are clothes that can be easily stretched, torn, or ruined, so a softer wash process needs to take place.

Also, we recommend using a little less soap since the machine won’t be doing as thorough of a job as the normal setting. You don’t want to have soap residue lingering on your favorite shirt.

Wash Cold

Ok, now we have the washing symbol with a dot in it. It’s the exact same symbol we just saw, only it has a period.

What could this mean? What is that dot trying to say?

We’ve all been there, thinking too much into it. That’s why we’re here to help.

The explanation is simple. The dot simply means to wash normally, but under 65-85 degrees. So, you’ll wash this garment on the cold setting in most commercial washing machines.

The reason for washing in colder water is usually to protect the color of the garment. If you have a nice pair of dark blue jeans, you’ll want to keep that blue dark by washing it in cold water. Hot water releases material because of faster molecular speed (don’t worry, that’s as scientific and confusing as we get in this article).

That bright red shirt will stay vibrant by washing it in a temperature that’ll keep the color longer.

Wash in Warm Water

Another way of looking at this is that the dot means an introduction to keeping track of the amount of degrees. As we move through the list, you’ll find out what an increasing amount of dots mean.

With one dot, we know to wash it in cold water. With two dots, it’ll be warmer water, though not yet hot.

Machine Wash Hot

Because we’re still using the cup shape, we know that we’re still using a washing machine.

This looks just like the normal wash as well as the warm wash, so we can only assume that three dots means even hotter water.

The assumption would be right! Three dots mean we’re moving on to hot water.

There are useful reasons why hot water might be ideal. When washing whites, hot water will do a better job of cleaning than cold water. This is because the molecular speed of hot water is faster, thus cleaning your clothes more thoroughly.

You might be thinking, “Does that mean washing in cold water is not cleaning as well?”

Short answer, “Yes,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t being sufficiently washed. They’re getting plenty cleaned, but your whites are just a bit cleaner (and more gleaming!).

It’s ideal to get your whites as clean as possible because whites need to be as bright white as possible.

Washing whites in hot water is no big deal, because there is no color that’ll drain and become faded. You want to wash whites as much as possible, because it’s the absence of color you want to preserve. This is why you wash colors in cold, to get them clean while keeping color in.

Hand Wash

We’re thrown a curveball when we see the cup of water with the hand symbol on the tag. Although it’s an initial head tilt, we can pretty much deduce that it’s a hand wash item.

When we’re shopping and we see this symbol on the tag, we think, “Is it worth it?”

Hand washing is time consuming, boring, and admittedly, confusing. It makes us feel like we’re on a farm in the early 1900’s.

Though a washboard still has usage, it’s more than likely that we do not have a washboard at home.

Washing by hand is easy once you know how to do it. The Spruce offers help on the specifics and the directions are easy to follow.

Rule number one - you must start out with a clean sink. Clean, disinfect, and completely empty out the sink in which you’re going to be washing clothes in. You don’t want to make your clothes dirtier while trying to get them clean.

The next move will be to fill the sink up with lukewarm soapy water. Submerge your garment in water and soak it in the soapy water for a minimum of five minutes. This is where the swish comes in.

Swish it before the soak and after to make sure the soap reaches all the areas of the garment. Be careful with the swishing, don’t do it too harshly or else it’ll stretch it out.

You might also see a symbol that looks like this one with one or more dots in it. This means the same as the above, the dots meaning the temperature of the water.

Do Not Wash

It’s pretty self explanatory with the giant “X” going through this symbol. Do not wash in water. This garment can’t be submerged in water, so it’s best to take this to the dry cleaners for them to figure out.

Tumble Dry

Let’s take a look at drying symbols. After we wash, we need to decide what’s appropriate for the drying process depending on the materials used in the garment.

This circle in a square symbol means the item can be tumble dried with no real restrictions. It can handle a regular drying process.

Tumble Dry Low Heat

If you see the same symbol but with a dot, that means the heat must be low while it’s tumble drying.

Tumble Dry Medium Heat

Two dots gives you a little more flexibility with heat, but you should still have the setting only up to medium heat.

Tumble Dry Hot

Three dots gives you the go ahead to tumble dry your clothes on hot.

Do Not Tumble Dry

If you see the square with a big “X” through it, it cannot go in the dryer. The materials are too sensitive to be dried this way and it can ruin the garment.

Dry Flat

Following the same idea, the square with the straight line in it means that not only do you need to avoid the dryer, but you also need to make sure this item dries carefully placed on a flat surface. The item probably has the ability to become misshapen, so you want to lay it out neatly.

Hang Dry

This next symbol has a clothing line drawn onto it, meaning you can hang dry the item without worrying about stretching and pulling and morphing the item’s shape.

Drip Dry

The square with three vertical lines means you can basically hang it up any way you want. It’s called “drip dry,” and you can sloppily hang it wherever and it’ll dry while keeping the shape.


The bleaching symbols are pretty easy once you know what the triangle means. The empty triangle means it’s ok to bleach and the black triangle with an “X” through it means not to use any bleach on the item.

Use Non-Chlorine Bleach

The triangle with the stripes means you can bleach, but it has to be non-chlorine bleach.

Iron on Low

Perhaps the easiest one to understand is the iron symbol. The dots work just like they have for other symbols, meaning the amount of dots equal how hot to have the setting on. With one dot, you want to keep the iron in use at a low setting.

Two dots means you can have it on a bit warmer, on a medium setting. Three dots means you can iron the item as hot as you need.

The last image is the iron with an “X” through it meaning you cannot iron the garment at all.

Dry Clean

The plain circle means you can dry clean the item.

Dry Clean Only & Avoid Tetrachlorethylene

If you see the letter “P” within that circle, you want to find a dry cleaning place that will avoid using Tetrachlorethylene, a strong dry cleaning liquid that is used as a solvent.

This symbol also means that it’s dry clean only, so there should be no other way of washing the item.

Any Solvent is Okay

If you see the letter “A,” that means any solvent is okay to use.

Petroleum Solvent Only

A circle with the letter “F” means that a petroleum based dry cleaning method needs to be used.

Do Not Dry Clean

Last but not least, the circle with a big “X” through it means do not dry clean.

Mysteries Solved

Hopefully this clears up the confusing world of USA clothing washing symbols. Never misunderstand a washing instruction symbol again. Laundry should be easy!

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This guide was published on February 5, 2018, and last modified on February 5, 2018.
Stores related to this article: Downy, Maytag, Persil, Snuggle, Arm & Hammer, Tide

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