Washing symbols and care labels: learn how to decode them


August 27, 2023


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Care labels

Technical clothing is always a sound choice for sporting activities and outdoor adventures, with clear advantages in terms of breathability, waterproofing, drying ability, comfort and much more. To preserve their many properties and make them last as long as possible, it’s essential to take good care of your garments and use washing methods suited to the materials they are made of.

In this article, you will learn how to decode washing symbols and other care label pictograms to take good care of your technical clothing:

  1. The Importance of Technical Clothing Care and Washing
  2. Symbols Worth Knowing
  3. Different Materials, Different Needs
  4. Tips for Maximizing Washes
  5. FAQ

The Importance of Technical Clothing Care and Washing

All technical clothing picks up dirt over time and will eventually need a good wash to regain its full effectiveness – even the items that don’t need to be washed that frequently. In many cases, a garment that seems to have lost some of its qualities can be revitalized with a good deep cleaning. Spot treatments can also be applied to offset the wear and tear of certain materials and restore their ability to withstand the elements.
Taking proper care of your clothes and the materials they are made of is also the best way to keep them in good condition and ensure they have a longer lifespan. Plus, not only does it benefit you directly, but it’s also a good eco-friendly gesture – and one of several good habits you can adopt to rethink your consumption of outdoor clothing and gear.

Symbols Worth Knowing

Care labels

Caring for your outdoor clothing should always start with reading the care label. Manufacturers typically use those to provide specific instructions for washing, drying, and ironing or pressing each item. The instructions are often presented in the form of pictograms, and once you’ve learned a few basics, you’ll be able to understand all the symbols without too much difficulty.

Temperature Symbols

The maximum recommended temperature for each garment care step is usually indicated in degrees Celsius or with a number of dots between one and six. A single dot means the lowest temperature setting on an appliance or cold washing water (about 30 °C). Then, the more dots on a pictogram, the higher the recommended temperature for the step in question.

Washing Symbols

The washing symbol looks like a bucket filled with water. In its simplest form, this pictogram means machine wash at any temperature, at normal setting. It then varies depending on the recommended washing method and temperature; one or two lines at the bottom indicate the appropriate setting for the machine (either permanent press or gentle cycle), while a hand pictogram above means that the item should be washed by hand. Finally, the dots or the number of degrees on the symbol indicate the maximum washing water temperature.

Drying Symbols

Drying symbols also vary according to the recommended method and temperature. The basic shape of the symbol is a square, and what’s inside provides instructions on whether to tumble dry an item (i.e., put it in the dryer), lay it flat or hang it up to dry. Other signs can also be added to symbols to give special instructions, such as air drying in the shade or tumble-drying without heat. As with washing symbols, dots and lines can be used to indicate maximum temperature and machine setting.

Ironing/Pressing Symbols

Instructions for ironing and pressing are given via a symbol shaped like an iron. The maximum temperature is usually indicated by one or more dots inside the symbol, and it varies according to the type of fabric. Two other symbols in a similar shape can also be used to indicate that an item should not be steamed or that it should never be ironed or pressed.

Different Materials, Different Needs

Each type of fibre or material calls for a specific care method, so what your outdoor clothes are made of likely impacts the steps you should take to wash and care for them. In addition to referring to the washing symbols and other pictograms on the label, you can also follow a few basics on how to care for specific materials. That way, you won’t end up with a shrunken base layer, a down jacket that no longer keeps you warm or a rain jacket that lets water in.

Merino Wool and Synthetic Fibres

Most merino wool and synthetic fibre clothing can be machine washed in cold or lukewarm water at gentle cycle. Unless stated otherwise on the label, it is usually air dried, often on a flat surface to avoid distorting the fabric. Choose your products carefully; use mild soaps and specially formulated cleaning products, particularly for merino wool, and make sure you never exceed the maximum recommended temperature, as hot water can shrink the fibres. When washing base layers, socks or any other merino wool garments, turn them inside out before putting them in the washing machine to protect the fabric.

Waterproof Clothing

In general, waterproof clothing can be machine washed in cold water, and possibly lukewarm water if a particular item is very dirty or has a bad odour. Make sure you close all zippers and closures beforehand to protect the fabric. To maintain the waterproof and water-repellent properties of your clothing, choose specially formulated cleaners or products that can be added to the washing water to either protect or restore them. It’s also important to rinse your waterproof clothing thoroughly after washing to remove any product residues that could impair performance.


Down cleaning and care is a delicate operation; the material is quite fragile, and its properties can be impaired if it is deformed or if residues build up in its fibres. Washing is typically done in cold water, with a mild soap or a specially formulated product, and should be followed by a thorough rinse. Handle your items with great care when they are wet, and make sure you never wring or compress them. They should always be tumble-dried at a low temperature or without any heat, preferably with dryer balls to help the down distribute evenly inside each garment. You can also take your clothes out of the dryer a few times through the cycle to manually break up any clumps of down.

Tips for Maximizing Washes

· Always read care labels before you start, and make sure you understand all washing and drying symbols;
· Close all pockets, fasteners, zippers and velcro closures on the garment;
· Ideally, use a specially formulated cleaning product (based on the type of garment, material or insulation), otherwise a mild soap;
· Never use stain removers, fabric softeners or bleaches, which can damage the fabric and impair the technical properties of your clothing.

The Right Products

cleaning and care products

The choice of  for your technical clothing should not be overlooked, as some chemical components found in detergents and other common laundry products can seriously damage materials and impair their properties. When you choose the right products, you are sure to get the expected results, plus you put all the odds in your favour to keep enjoying your gear for many years to come.

Most manufacturers of cleaning and care products offer various formulations to suit different types of clothing or materials. For waterproof clothing, for instance, some products can both clean the fabric and restore its water-repellent finish and breathability properties at the same time. There are products specially formulated for down, which deeply clean away dirt and restore the loft of the insulating material, as well as cleaners made for technical fabrics and activewear. Some products can also be sprayed directly onto surface stains and dirt, allowing you to reduce the washing frequency of certain items, which in turn helps you increase their lifespan – and even save a little water in the process.


What is a care label?

How do you know if it goes in the washing machine?


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