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Is the care label a lie or a lifeline?


Turning things inside out. Our guide to understanding what the clothes care label means.

What is the truth behind those cryptic symbols you skim over? Too often, we cut the care label out unaware of its importance. Well, this is about to change. We will turn things inside out so you can do the same.

Label, what label?

The care label, a rulebook for caring for your clothes, is sadly hidden. This veiling of the label reflects society's focus on producing clothes. Designers focus on shape, colour, style, and the figure a dress creates. Little to no thought goes into the care label that is added after the production of the clothes. It is an afterthought!

This is also reflected in consumers' mindsets, always aesthetics before aftercare. Or convenience before the environment; therefore, the care of our clothes is rarely prioritised. People repeat their trusty laundry routine, oblivious that the 40°C wash is ruining their favourite knit and planet.

Why the label?

Clothes are designed to be worn, and you would hope for a long time. Following and paying attention to the care labels of your clothes is the perfect way to keep your garments in the best condition and lasting for longer.

Without this proper care for your garment, some clothes may rip, shrink or the colours might run. Some fabrics should not even enter that laundry basket, as they require specialist treatment from a dry cleaner. Knowing how to care for your clothes will:

  1. Make them last longer

  2. Reduce your need to buy more items

  3. Stop companies from needing to produce more

What's more to love? But its meaning tends to be lost in the wash. We now need to break the label down into what it includes, what it means and how to make the cleaning process greener.

Materials: the good, the bad and the ugly

A good clothing label will have detailed information about the materials used to make the garment, with numbers, percentages, you name it.

Ever wondered what your clothes are made out of? Well, now is your chance. The care label is the best way to determine the fibres that make up your garment. Not only does it help you take better care of your clothes, but it also enables you to estimate how long the clothing will last. You can even use this information to decide if you want the garment to be a part of your wardrobe. Answering questions like: does the price match the product? Is the fibre for the future?

Environmental footprint – let's discuss. So as illustrated by our previous article Death by Dye, our clothes are not as pretty as they seem. They come from dirty work. Fibres follow in their footprint, or in this case, their ecological footprint.

The cream of the crop is natural fibres that can be classified according to their origin. The vegetable, or cellulose-base, class includes such important fibres as cotton, flax, and jute. The animal, or protein-base, fibres include wool, mohair, and silk.

Synthetic fibres are made mainly from non-renewable coal and oil refined into monomers, and tend to shred a lot of micro-plastic particles during the wash cycle. They include polyester, acrylic, nylon and elastane. Textiles made from synthetic fibers have overtaken the market with the rising of fast fashion so it's difficult to avoid them. You can minimise their environmental impacts by installing a microfibers filter on your washing machine but choices are limited. In fact, the only one currently available on UK market is Planetcare. We wrote a full article the topic: How to Deal with Microplastics at Home.

Removing the confusion, pictures with a purpose.

Yes, we agree. Although handy, care labels are hard to understand. Simple adjustments and decoding of these labels can make a real difference to your bank account and the environment!

Before we get into the specifics, here is a break down of the most common symbols, as a general rule:

  • Washing tub symbols cover all things washing related (including machine and hand washing)

  • Triangles tell you about bleaching: whether you can do it, and what type of bleach is appropriate

  • Squares refer to how the item should be dried

  • An ironing icon gives you info on (you guessed it) the most appropriate iron settings to use

  • Circles tell you about dry cleaning your garment

In almost all cases, any of the above symbols with a cross or X through them means you should not carry out that action


A supposedly primary symbol but loaded with information about your clothing. It tells you:

  1. the safe washing temperature

  2. right washing method

In the UK and the US, black dots indicate the temperature. The more dots, the higher the temperate. The laundry morse code! European symbols make it slightly more straightforward; temperatures range from 30 – 90°C within the washing tub.

Cleaning your clothes at the right temperature is essential. If the temperature is too hot or cold, it can damage or reshape your garment. A gentle wash typically has cooler temperatures and is suited to particular items, such as blouses, wool and lingerie.

Green tip: Do you need to wash your clothes at 40°C every time? Even though your washing machine may be automatically programmed to this setting, break the cycle! Keep the temperatures to 30°C or less, and remove stains before putting your clothes in the washing machine!


These symbols determine your drying method or whether to avoid the tumble dryer altogether. These are more intricate, with a flat line indicating that you should dry the garment flat

Similarly, a curved line at the top of the square means solely line dry. Bet you didn't know that!

Green tip: Avoid tumble dryers altogether. They are energy intensive and the heat damages your clothes.


Want purely whites, think again or even better, check the care label. Most clothes can't handle bleaching agents, so it is always good to see if a triangle symbol is crossed out.

Green tip: White vinegar or lemons are an unknown natural solution to replace the damaging chlorine-based bleach. You already have these in your kitchen, so why not give them a go?


Ironing is the classic chore within our households, but ironing can often damage delicate fabrics.

Like the basin symbol, there is a picture of an iron with black dots to indicate temperature. One is low, two is medium, and three is high. Put that ironing board away if there is a crossed-out symbol!

Green tip: Steam your clothes instead of ironing them. The steam from your shower is also a perfect opportunity to smooth out those wrinkles. And why not spray rose water over clothes to add that extra freshness?


Behold the symbol for dry-cleaning. Essentially these symbols mean that cleaning these clothes is better handled by a professional (sorry!). The more additional things the symbol has, such as lines under the cycle, the more precaution the dry cleaner needs to take.

Another essential myth to uncover is the difference between ‘dry clean’ and ‘dry clean only’. Yes, they both use the words dry clean, but does this mean they both need to be sent straight to the place down the road? The short answer is no.

Here is the rule: items with the label Dry Clean, don’t have to be dry cleaned. It is solely the manufacturer’s recommendation. Whereas labels with the word ‘only’ must be adhered to. Tailored suits, jackets and coats may be damaged if put in your everyday wash due to the mix of fabrics and linings they contain.

The ’Dry Clean Only’ label can be a relief for many people, as the task is taken off their to-do list. The one problem we all have in common is the lack of time, so let’s address this by tackling the taboo of outsourcing our household chores.

Green tip: we have done this for you already. Check out our article on The Dirty Truth of Housework.

Small but mighty.

From one symbol comes a lot of information. Information that can help to stop your lovely new knitwear from emerging dishevelled and discoloured.

Beyond just making your clothes last longer, caring for your clothes correctly can be a massive help to our planet. And as a general rule of thumb:

- Wash your clothes less

- Pre-treat stains on the spot. Carrying a small sponge with you to treat the stains straight away.

- Fairy dishwashing soap works very well to pre-treat oily stains

- Brush stains away. use a clothes brush, a nail brush or toothbrush works very well too

- Air and steam your clothes to refresh them between each wash

- Understand what you wear and how to wash it.

- Machine wash with cold water or at no more than 20 degrees.

By decoding the washing care symbols, less water, energy and plastic fibres are used. But don’t be fooled by the pretty pictures. You need to read between the black lines and see whether the symbols are guidelines or rules to follow.

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