What are care labels and why are they important?
Care labels are either pictograms or instructions sewn into clothing to ensure that its treated propertly when washing, drying and ironing. Whatever you do don't iron over them as they can make clothing incredibly uncomfortable to wear afterwards! If you need to cut a care label off, pin it to a bulletin board for future reference with a note describing the item.
The label instructions are the maximum permitted treatment - for example just because the label indicates that you can wash in hot water, that doesn't mean that you have to. You can safely wash it in cold water. This is especially relevant when you want to combine a number of different of types of clothing into a single load.
There are four possible symbols on a care label are: washing (washtub), bleaching (triangle), drying (a square) and ironing (an iron). Dots and lines are added to the symbols to give further information.
The pictograms are pretty straightforward with the numbers in the washtub depicting the maximum temperature that the clothing can be washed. The numbers are sometimes replaced by dots, with a single dot representing low temperature (up to 86°F), two dots meduim (78°F to 111°F) and three dots hot (112°F to 145°F). If the regular use of hot water up to 145°F will not harm the product then the label will not have a temperature mentioned. A label should clearly indicate if the product should be washed by hand or machine. Permanent press is a slightly gentler wash in order to prevent wrinkling of clothes and is designed for wrinkle-treated fabrics, synthetics, man-made fibers and blends. The gentle or delicate cycle is meant for washable silks, woolens and any fiber made in delicate constructions or weaves. An additional instruction to washing may be to 'wash separately' or 'wash with like colors' which could indicate that the dyes in that item of clothing may bleed.
The label must state whether the clothing should be dried by machine or another method. If you can machine dry then the label should state the temperature unless regular use at high temperatures will not damage the clothes. The do not wring care label is applicable to all clothes. Wringing can stretch knitted clothing and other fabrics out of shape. Always gently squeeze excess water from your clothes.
Ironing and bleaching
The label doesn't have to mention bleach if all available bleaches can be used on a regular basis without harming the product. Ironing should only be mentioned on the care label only if it is needed on a regular basis to preserve the clothes. Low heat on an iron is approximately 230°F, meduim heat is 300°F and high heat is 390°F. A dry cleaning care label is not in the diagram but its represented by a circle.
Further reading on care labels can be found on the Federal Trade Commision's website here.