Making sense of clothing care labels

Hartford CourantOctober 17, 2012 


Under law, care labels must provide washing or dry cleaning instructions and warn against any procedures Ð such as bleaching or ironing Ð that might harm the item.


Spots and stains are the ultimate wardrobe malfunctions. Spill coffee on a silk blouse or ketchup on your tie and unless you can remedy the mess, you’ve wasted the money you invested in those clothes.

Luckily, the Federal Trade Commission requires manufacturers to attach care labels to most garments – which means all you have to do is check the tag for the best way to remedy the sullied mess, right?

If the care label has written instructions, you’ve got a chance to come clean. But if it has a series of symbols, you may be in hot water when it comes to figuring out just what to do next.

Under law, care labels must provide washing or dry cleaning instructions and warn against any procedures – such as bleaching or ironing – that might harm the item. Manufacturers have the choice of providing this information with written instructions or standardized symbols.

Written instructions, such as “warm water,“ “no bleach,” “line dry” or “dry clean only” are pretty straightforward. The 40-plus symbols, which include circles, squares and triangles, are more challenging – especially when combined with the dots, dashes, squiggles, underscores and Xs that offer additional specifics such as water temperatures, heat settings and drying instructions.

Online guides, The American Cleaning Institute ( the Federal Trade Commission, ( and other websites offer consumer guides to the symbols, and when viewed in their intended groupings, the pictures make some sense.

Here’s the basic breakdown:

• Circles (used with letters and other designs) are dry-cleaning recommendations.

• Cubes (with dots and lines) are drying instructions.

• Triangles relate to bleaching; a washtub refers to hand or machine laundering. An outline of an iron illustrates pressing settings (low, medium, high, steam). A giant X through any of these means “don’t do it.”

But all this clothes captioning is confusing out of context.

Find a label with a cube with a dash in the center (dry flat), the triangle with two diagonal lines (only non-chlorine bleach) and something that looks like a piece of saltwater taffy with an X through it (do not wring), for example, and unless you’ve got the key, it’s tough to break the code.

Philip Cote, owner of French Cleaners in West Hartford, Conn., says the hieroglyphics can stump even the professionals.

“We get customers in here all the time who are totally baffled by the symbols,” says Cote. “They just don’t know what they’re supposed to do with the garment. Some of the labels even indicate that there’s actually no way to clean or launder the item or that certain sections of the same piece needs different care. We’ve got a collection of photos of some of the most confusing.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission, care labels can be a deciding factor when consumers shop for clothing. While some shoppers look for the convenience of dry cleaning, others prefers the economy of washable garments.

Cote says otherwise.

“We find that most people tend to buy first and look at care instructions later,” he says. “When they can’t figure it out, they wash up at their cleaners.”

Which happens often. Americans spend nearly $7.8 billion on dry cleaning each year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Robert Frisby, an attorney with the Bureau of Consumer Protection (part of the Federal Trade Commission), says the bureau is gathering information on how well consumers understand or don’t understand the labeling system. The public can post comments at

Meanwhile, consumers must decipher the codes on their own or head for the nearest dry cleaners.

Which, in some cases, may be the better choice. Cote says consumers should fight the urge to deal with a bad stain on their own. When one of his customers called recently in a panic about a balsamic-salad-dressing spatter, he told her what he tells everyone.

“Just don’t touch it,” he says. “Don’t try to wipe it off and don’t pour club soda on it. Blot it gently, let it dry and bring it in to your dry cleaners as soon as you can. They’ll help you figure out what to do.”

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