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Your Complete Guide to Understanding Care Labels

  • Clothing labels include all sorts of valuable information, including laundry instructions and fiber composition.
  • Understanding the fibers will help you gauge the comfort of the garment and predict how long it should last.
  • Laundry instruction symbols can be confusing at first glance. We have decoded them into human language for you.
  • We also believe labels have enough space for additional information that’s important for keeping the environment clean. They could, for example, warn consumers if the clothes pollute the oceans with plastic microfibers when we wash them.

Take a closer look at what you’re wearing right now. Most likely the piece has two tags. The first one, located on the top inside of the garment, may display the brand logo and offer information on the size, country of production and, possibly, fiber content.

The second label is stitched into the left seam between the front and back of the garment. If you’re anything like a younger me, your first instinct is to cut the “annoying” appendix straight away. A big mistake! When you look close enough and decipher the symbols, you’ll find all sorts of important details that will keep the garment nice and clean. This information includes:

  • Fiber content (if the fiber makes up for more than five percent of the total weight it must be listed on the care labels)
  • Instructions for laundering also known as care instructions
  • Company details, including the RN number (registration number for U.S. companies. It provides consumers with contact details of the manufacturer. You can explore the RN numbers here)


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Fibers and care labels: the good, the bad, the ugly

Fiber composition is the main reason why consumers read the label, according to a Cotton Incorporated survey of six thousand respondents. Other reasons include learning about laundering instructions, estimating the quality, and gauging comfort.

Understanding the fibers and their characteristics is in fact essential. It helps you take better care of the clothes and predict how long they might last. You can use the information to decide if the piece is worth the price or if you’re only paying big bucks to flaunt yourself with a famous brand.

The fibers, their production, and after-care, also affect the environmental footprint. We know there’s no “perfectly green” material, but some are still better than others. The most sustainable, for example, are natural fibers - recycled cotton, linen, Tencel (a light cellulose fabric made from wood pulp), and materials made of pineapples or hemp. 

Synthetic fabrics also have their advantages – they are more durable, waterproof, and stain-resistant than most natural fibers. But there are downsides that are hard to ignore. For starters, plastic fibers pollute the oceans and rivers after they enter wastewater via our washing machines. Read PlanetCare’s blog to learn more about the pervasive microfiber pollution and what we can all do about it.  

Understanding care labels for a longer life of your clothes

Care labels are also packed with wonderfully precise, albeit sometimes confusing, laundry instructions for washing, bleaching, drying, ironing, and dry-cleaning. Labelling schemes can slightly differ between countries, but usually only with less important details.

 Listen to sustainable fashion expert Justine Leconte as she explains how to properly take care of your clothes. 

Understanding care labels and following laundry instructions makes clothes last longer. That’s good news for your bank account and equally beneficial for the environment. Massive piles of clothes prematurely end up in landfills where they decompose and emit greenhouse gases. The results are shocking: the global fashion industry produces more CO2 than international flights and shipping combined. Wearing clothes longer is one big step each of us can take towards more sustainable living. 

The ugly truth, however, is that caring for clothes is also energy-intensive. Washing and drying a load every two days, for example, creates around 440kg of CO2 each year, which is equivalent to flying from London to Glasgow and back with 15-mile taxi rides to and from the airports. 

The good news is that simple adjustments to your laundry routine can generate noticeably positive effects. We explore these greener alternatives below (and even more extensively in our guide for sustainable laundry), where we also decode the laundry symbols themselves. Let’s jump right in.

The basin symbol tells you two things: the safe washing temperature and the right washing method. The temperature is represented with a number or with dots. The continental European standard shows a number between 30 and 95 degrees Celsius, while in the US, UK, and Canada you’ll notice black dots - more dots, the higher maximum temperature.

It’s essential to follow the instructions: if the water is either too hot or too cold, it can damage or misshape the garment. Stick to the instructed washing method as well. A gentle or delicate cycle with slow speed spin is typically recommended for wool, lingerie, or blouses. The permanent press tells you the fabric has been treated with chemicals to prevent wrinkles. This means you should wash with reduced spin speed and a cold rinse before the spin.

Green tip: Unless the clothes are super dirty, keep the temperatures to 30°C or less. Your clothes will come out just as nice and clean, but you’ll also be making our planet a small favor. According to one report, Brits, alone, would reduce their CO2 footprint by the same amount as taking 400,000 cars off the road - by simply washing clothes at 30°C. Washing at this temperature uses a whopping 38 percent less energy than doing the same ordeal with ten degrees warmer water.

understanding care labels

These symbols will help you determine the right drying method -  or avoid tumble dryers and their damaging effects on certain materials. There is more: a square with a horizontal line means you should dry the garment flat. But if you see a curved line in the top of the square, only line dry the beloved item, possibly in the shade.

Green tip:  Tumble dryers require heaves of energy to run. Air drying is completely sustainable, plus it’s easier on the fibers that the dryer may damage. If air drying is not an option, consider a heat-pump dryer – they are more expensive upfront but, compared to traditional dryers, more efficient and can save you money on energy bills.

understanding care labels

Before turning to bleach to make your whites shine like they’re new, check the care label. You might find out that the clothes can’t handle bleaching agents in the first place. The bleach symbol is shown as a triangle - which is crossed out if bleaching is out of the question.

Green tip: Chlorine-based bleach is great for removing stubborn stains, but it’s also heavy on the environment. There are friendlier alternatives that are also used to whiten and brighten clothes. One is hydrogen peroxide. Also consider all-natural solutions such as baking soda, white vinegar, or lemons.

Ironing sounds like a no-brainer but mistakes can easily lead to irreparable damage, especially for delicate fabrics. The ironing symbol is shown as a little iron with dots in the middle that indicate the temperature setting.

Green tip: A good alternative to ironing is to simply hang your clothes in the bathroom while you’re having a hot shower. The steam should smooth the wrinkles. You can also spray rose water over clothes for extra freshness.

understanding care labels

Some garments are better off being handled by a professional: that’s when dry cleaning comes into the picture. The above symbols help tell the dry-cleaner what solvent to use. The more bars underneath the circle, the more precaution the dry cleaner must take.

Green tip: Dry cleaning is a highly chemical-intensive process. A simple alternative is to still wash delicate fabrics but on gentle, lower temperature cycles. Some garments can be hand-washed using a mild, eco-friendly soap. Also - consider using special bags or liquid silicone and CO2 cleaning for stains that are harder to remove. 

Care labels are big enough to carry more information

We think there is still space on the labels for symbols that help consumers make more conscious purchases. For example, we would like to know who, specifically, made the garment? Were they fairly treated? What is the environmental cost of production and transport? 

Labels should also inform people if washing the garment contributes to microplastic pollution in the oceans. We now know that synthetic clothes shed up to 1,500,000 microfibers per wash. Without anything to stop them, microfibers enter wastewater and end up polluting the oceans and rivers.

These particles come from polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic fibers. A report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that 35 percent of all primary microplastics in the oceans originate from machine-washed synthetic textiles, making it the largest source of microplastics. 

Most big brands, however, are shamelessly ignoring the problem they largely helped to create. These companies show “no clear commitment to addressing plastic microfiber pollution from their clothes”, a recent study of 48 major fashion brands revealed.

Microfiber pollution care symbol – it’s just a matter of time

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Politicians in some places, for example, have recognized the issue. They consider warning symbols on labels as one way to help curb microfiber pollution. In 2018, California introduced legislation that would require clothing items containing more than 50 percent of polyester to carry a label warning that the garment releases plastic microfibers when machine washed. Unfortunately, the bill didn’t pass. A similar idea was proposed in New York but it also didn’t get far.

We still believe that it’s just a matter of time until we see this kind of information on our synthetic clothes. We already designed a label! What do you think about the idea? We would love to read your answers in the comments.

Microfiber pollution label
Blazej Kupec
Blazej Kupec
Blazej writes about inspiring ideas and fascinating people who make our world a greener place. A journalist by profession, Blazej can be found in Berlin, most likely in coworking places or anywhere with Neapolitan pizza. When he is not writing, he’ll read history books or collect old maps.

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8 comments on “Your Complete Guide to Understanding Care Labels”

  1. Labels in synthetic clothing and the like is a brilliant idea and should be mandatory across the world, The only problem with that is; young fashion concious people love cheap clothing, all of which is mainly made from synthetic fabrics.
    The answer is more widespread education to the people these products are aimed at.
    Love the blog.

    1. Hi Jackie! Glad you liked the blog. I completely agree that more information leads to greater awareness which is the key here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Hi Melanie! I'm happy you liked the blog. I agree, and it would raise more awareness. We still believe that it’s just a matter of time until we see this kind of information on our synthetic clothes.

  2. I learned about you from the CBS show with Mo Rocca. I have 2 questions. I use Earth Breeze laundry sheets for my laundry so that I’m not bringing the plastic jugs into my house. Will they be ok with your filter? Also, my husband just reminded me that we have a septic system. He seems to think we aren’t polluting since it stays in the concrete tank until it’s pumped out. Is this correct? I love what you’re doing!

    1. Hello,

      Thank you for reaching out and being interested in stopping microfiber pollution. We’ve tested laundry sheets in our lab and the filter works well with them, so you shouldn’t have any issues.

      Regarding the septic tank, it’s true that the fibers are contained while in there, but when the tank is emptied, I assume it goes to a waste water treatment plant to get processed?

      In that case, microfibers will end up in the sewage sludge which very often gets reapplied to the soil, meaning the fibers will very likely end up in the environment (

      Our filter follows the principle of stopping the pollution at the source so that it cannot be dispersed further downstream and pollute as it goes through.

      Thank you for your kind words and we hope you'll join our Ocean Heroes in the fight against microfiber pollution 🙂
      Team PlanetCaere

  3. The symbols are making it very difficult for me (and others) to know how to wash and dry the item…..
    You guide is very complete however unless I print the pages out and place it in my laundry room and look at it each time to decipher how to wash each Item it won't do me any good!

    The tags in the past were in words only. I can read words, have not got the time (or energy)
    to use the symbols. Now I just guess…

  4. Ik zou het heel prettig vinden wanneer er meer informatie op de labels zou komen. Tevens zou er ook meer informatie moeten worden gegeven in de media.
    Ik had me niet gerealiseerd hoeveel microplastics door wassen in het milieu komen.

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