Care labelling problems and incorrect care labels continue to bedevil cleaners worldwide. Life is not made any easier by the variety of national code symbols appearing on garments brought into the UK. This month we look again at the bleaching symbols from the international care labelling code ISO 37583, because this is still giving rise to misunderstandings. together with some of the more common symbols from other national care labelling codes, particularly those concerning drycleaning and drying.

We are highlighting errors in recognition, which are presenting some of the worst and most expensive problems. We recommend readers to keep this edition handy for reference, because you never know when an expensive foreign-purchased item from a valued customer might suddenly come over the counter. All of the labels in this month’s issue are circulating widely, and in today’s global marketplace they could and will turn up anywhere. You cannot know everything, but it is worth being prepared for the most common puzzling symbols and hieroglyphics! Be prepared!

Traffic light symbols

Although Canada has supported the international care labelling code3, it is not unusual still to find their old traffic light system that was used nationally and on some exported garments, particularly vintage ones. This uses the colour of the symbol to denote caution or prohibition, instead of a cross through the symbol or lines underneath or around it. If, for example, the symbol  is shown in green, this could be interpreted as permitting drycleaning in perchloroethylene or hydrocarbon on a normal cycle, with no particular restrictions. If it is shown in amber, then it is warning the cleaner that restrictions are needed. These could be on moisture, mechanical action or drying temperature and it is up to the cleaner to read the fibre content label and examine the item to decide which might apply (just as is the case with the international symbol ). The most important point to note is that if the symbol is a circle shown in red, this does not mean that drycleaning is recommended – it means just the opposite – Do not dryclean!

Avoiding bleaching problems

Bleaching is used to decolour vegetable dye stains from beetroot, blackcurrant, red wine, tea, coffee and practically anything which originally came from plant life. Sodium hypochlorite (‘chlorine bleach’) is inexpensive and widely used and it is powerful enough to work in cold or warm water very quickly (3 – 4 minutes) at low concentrations (typically 150 parts per million (ppm)). It is so powerful, even at low temperature and concentration, that it will fade many dyestuffs, which is why it is vital to be able to recognise the symbols for ‘do not bleach’ and ‘use only an oxygen bleach’.

Use of chlorine bleach in the hot wash or at higher concentrations is a primary cause of rotting of cotton textiles, leading to premature failure, with holes and tears reducing textile life. If you get serial complaints of this type, then bleaching is the first thing to check.

Many regions now ban the use of chlorine bleach (because of its effect on fish and plant life in long, high-volume, slow-flowing rivers), and oxygen bleaches are the preferred alternative. These are much safer towards sensitive dyestuffs and the bleaching symbol allowing the use only of oxygen bleaches should always be noted and acted on. Oxygen bleaches include hydrogen peroxide (which comes as a liquid), sodium percarbonate (a powder) as well peracetic acid and ozone (which have a milder bleaching action). Oxygen bleaches are normally used in the hot wash, where they act fast enough to be as effective as chlorine bleach. It is important to note and react correctly to the symbol permitting oxygen bleaching only.

North American drying symbols

The USA supports the international care labelling code3, and it also employs its own national code1 and some other countries (such as Canada2 now) also follow this. This has two groups of symbols for drying, one denoting the cycle to select on the tumble dryer control panel and the other indicating the temperature setting for the control knob. The cycle options are normal, permanent press and delicate/ gentle, where the permanent press is for protecting permanent creases and pleats and the delicate/gentle is to warn about items that might be susceptible to stretching, felting or other mechanical damage.

Separately from this, there is a temperature recommendation which uses dots in a circle and which differs considerably from the system used in the international standard. The different symbols used in Canada are shown in the chart.

North American wash temperature symbols

The US and Canadian codes use dots to denote wash temperature, rather than numerals. The temperatures allowed by different numbers of dots are shown in the chart.


Care labelling is likely to be the Achilles heel of the retail laundering, drycleaning and wetcleaning specialists for some time, as there does not yet appear to be sufficient political will anywhere in the world to tackle global standardisation.

The very symbols intended to make cleaning and laundering more effective, with prevention of unnecessary damage, are sometimes unnecessarily misleading, simply because different systems are still used in different countries. The various codes each have some very good points; what is needed is some urgency in bringing these together into an effective single, unified international system, so that goods purchased anywhere can be taken with confidence to retail cleaners worldwide. We live in an international environment and we owe it to the ever-increasing travelling public to get this sorted out.

We shall return to this topic again in the future.

  • Part 2 of ‘Unusual care labels’ will appear in the December issue.


[1] ASTM D5489-96c, published by the American Society for Trading and Materials.

[2] Guide to Textile and Apparel Textile Care symbols, published by the Canadian General Standards Board.

[3] Available in UK as BS EN 3758 Textiles – Care labelling code using symbols.

  • Note: National and International care labelling standards documents are mostly available for purchase in the UK from the British Standards Institution,