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Often people find that they get poor results from washing clothes or that things go wrong and often this is simply a case of misunderstanding the care labels on the clothes and not choosing the appropriate wash cycle.

It is truly staggering how many people do not follow the instructions (we do mean a HUGE number) and the almost identical amount of people that haven't a clue what they mean or are even for.

Then people wonder why they get problems and, all too often, blame the washing machine when in reality, the washing machine is not the problem at all.

This is all the more important on modern energy saving washing machines where there are less water and less electricity being used but, to achieve that, the wash time is extended meaning that if you choose, for example, to use a more intensive cotton cycle that has the drum rotating at 54rpm for an item that was supposed to be washed on a more delicate synthetic cycle with a 34rpm wash tumble speed then it is highly likely to become damaged.

Incorrect program choice and overloading are the top causes of damage to people's laundry by a massive margin. So much so that it is extremely rare to get a complaint about damage to laundry and not to find it being anything other than improper use by the owner.

Even if you've used a washing machine for years and think you know it all, you probably don't and the chances are that you will not wash all your clothes correctly all of the time. Remember that all new energy efficient washing machines which they all pretty much have to be due to environmental pressures on energy use, wash for a lot longer so if you put things meant for a milder wash process on a program that is far harsher and runs for much longer than your old washing machine then damage is much, much more likely to happen.

If you use a washing machine, you need to know this stuff!

New control panels make using your washing machine easier

  Making It Easier To Understand

Many manufacturers have moved to a new, cleaner system to allow people to understand what program that they are using by using control panels such as the Bosch one in the image to the right. You can see that what they have done is to break the program dial into distinct sections for each major fabric type.

Whilst this makes it harder to go wrong when you look at the care labels it doesn't help when you do not.

Some more expensive washing machines make it even simpler by giving you the choice of what fabric type you want to wash on the dial only then you choose the temperature and spin speed as required. But, even there if you make the wrong choice or choices, you'll probably damage your laundry.

  Essential Wash Symbols You Need To Know

We will start with the basic wash symbols that anyone using an automatic washing machine needs to know, recognise and understand. If you do not and choose to ignore the labels on your clothes then you will almost certainly encounter some form of damage such as holes in your clothes, shrinking or other damage from items not being washed on the correct program.

The good old days of using one, two or at most three programs like the vast majority of people do, are gone.

With modern fabrics and extended wash times your choice of wash program is desperately important as all these technologies and materials have advanced, your knowledge of what to do has to move on as well.

All temperatures referred to here are metric and are shown as centigrade as is the EU system.

The ones that are essential to know or that you should have an idea of what they are these ones:

  • Cotton
  • Synthetic
  • Delicates

The others are good to know, especially tumble drying and ironing but most people would work those out we'd hope.

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Cotton Wash Care Labels

click on each symbol for an explanation of each wash program 

Normal Cotton Wash Programs

These are normal full strength washes often referred to as a cotton washes that intended for cotton and articles of linen with no special finishes. It should be noted that placing items that are unsuitable for such a wash may result in permanent damage to those fabrics or any special finish on them, which there often is these days.

The 95˚C program is about as close as you can get to a sanitisation wash in a domestic setting and will kill just about all known bugs, mites and germs you would commonly find on laundry.

The 60-degree wash is for use with cotton, linen or viscose again, without any special finishes and where the fabric is colourfast to 60 degrees centigrade and remains a very popular program choice for many people.

This program will kill all mites, such as bed mites and so on and is usually recommended for bedding and towelling as a minimum due to that and we agree and always recommend that all bedding or towelling is washed on this program or a higher temperature if possible.

The temperature in this symbol can change to others, like the 40˚C wash below depending on the qualities of the fabric.

Remember not to use fabric softener on towels as fabric softener will leave a water repellent coating on towels and reduce their drying performance considerably.

The 40-degree wash, which seems to be the most popular wash cycle used in the UK accounting for some 25-30% of all washes in a washing machine. It is intended for use with cotton or viscose articles where they are colourfast to 40 degrees but not at 60 degrees.

Many people find this washing program an excellent compromise between speed of wash and efficiency of cleaning most common laundry items.

However, it is important to note that this is not suitable for many items, especially those with special finishes or that are not designed for the intensive cotton wash program. Washing items intended for the more delicate wash action of synthetics or delicate cycles will eventually become damaged if you use this program constantly and some finishes can even be damaged irreparably after one wash on the wrong program.

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Synthetic Wash Care Labels

click on each symbol for an explanation of each wash program 

Synthetic Programs

These are the symbols for nylon polyester/cotton mixes and viscose articles that do have special finishes, it can also be used for cotton/acrylic mixtures. the line underneath, like the others, designates that this is a more delicate wash action that is employed for this program.

You can see this special wash symbol with a variety of different temperature ratings depending on the recommendation for the fabric.

The 40-degree synthetic cycle can effectively deal with blended fibres such as acrylics, acetate and triacetate but also wool and polyester wool blends.

The line under the bucket denotes that the wash action is reduced and more delicate and therefore it may not be suitable for moderate or heavily stained items that do not have this restriction.

It is also important to note and be very aware that items or garments with this wash icon on them can and very probably will be damaged or lose their finish should you wash them in a wash program that has a stronger wash action. It is important and, on some items absolutely critical, that the correct program and detergent are used.

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Delicate Wash Care Labels

click on each symbol for an explanation of each wash program 

Delicate & Special Care

Programs on your washing machine that are designed for delicate items are for use with garments that have the double bars or two dashes (--) below, is a delicate wash for wool, wool blankets and wool mixtures with cotton or viscose and also can be used to wash silk.

The handwash symbol designates that the article cannot be machine washed and is intended for hand washing only. Some washing machines do have a wash cycle that can cope with such articles.

Do not use this program for anything other than hand wash or extremely delicate items as it is for fragile items of laundry only and will not clean normal laundry effectively. Also make sure that the item can be machine washed on a hand wash program as some cannot be, if you are unsure check with the garment manufacturer or the retailer for suitability or you risk causing irreparable damage to the item.

  Wash Program & Label Confusion

There is a myriad of care labels and, confusingly, they do differ in certain regions although a little common sense will usually allow you to decipher them without too much trouble. The point is though those items imported from the likes of the USA into Europe may have different laundry symbols on them, which only serves to confound people more.

With items from the Far East, India, Africa, the South Americas and others, all bets are off.

When we researched this again, largely due to the increase in people having issues with their laundry, what we found was that there is absolutely no guides in stores on the quality of the garments people buy other than the name on the label and the price offering any guidance as to the quality of the item. And, apart from an ISO Standard (ISO 3758) we could find no regulatory or testing means that garment manufacturers have to go through to ensure that the item has the correct care labelling instructions on it!

Apparently, much of this appears to be a voluntary thing done by the garment industry.

What you will see is the likes of thread counts on bed linen, especially Egyptian Cotton but beyond that, there really isn't much help on this for normal people in the street.

In other words, while the performance of your washing machine is regulated by the EU as is your detergent to some degree, your clothing, bedding and towelling is not under the same level of scrutiny.

Then factor in that the vast majority of people have not got a clue what most of these symbols mean and you have a recipe for disaster. To get an idea of how confusing this is, just look at the wash care labels below and, that's not even all of them!

We'd bet that nobody outside the detergent, clothing or laundry care industry could get even half of what these symbols mean. Even most washing machine engineers wouldn't have a clue about most of them.

It is therefore absolutely no surprise at all that people get it wrong and ruin clothes, a lot.

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Bleaching Instructions

Bleach Care Labels

click on each symbol for an explanation of each 

It is absolutely vital that garments and other items that have the "Do Not Bleach" label are not washed using a detergent that contains bleach, which many detergents will. The only way to be sure that you are not using a bleach containing soap powder or detergent is to use one that is recommended for coloured items or liquid detergent.

If you ignore this then the item may begin to fade, looked "washed out" and so on after only a few washes.

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Tumble Drying Instructions

Tumble Drying Care Labels - European

click on each symbol for an explanation of each drying program 

Please take care not to tumble dry clothing and other garments that are not recommended to be dried in your tumble dryer as if they are damaged by heat there is normally no repair to the item possible.

Also please note that no item that has plastic or a plastic coating on it such as bath mats and so on can ever be tumble dried and there is a risk of fire should you do so.

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Natural Drying Instructions

Natural Drying Care Labels

click on each symbol for an explanation of each 

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Ironing Instructions

Ironing Wash Care Labels

click on each symbol for an explanation of each 

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Professional Wash Care Labels

Dry Cleaning Care Labels

click on each symbol for an explanation of each wash program 

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Professional Wet Cleaning Care Labels

click on each symbol for an explanation of each wash program 

Real World Example

A typical fabric care lable found on a man's shirt

Here is a typical wash care label from a white cotton shirt that most people would probably think was fine to wash on a 40 or even a 60-degree wash.

But it isn't.

Given that it was found on a £70 Ralph Lauren shirt you would think that people would pay more heed to these labels as three of these shirts is more than many budget washing machines will cost and, that's only a partial load for most washing machines.

What the label tells you here, both for the US and Canada as well as the EU is that the shirt should be washed at 30˚C maximum temperature on a cotton cycle. 

It should not be bleached, which most people would find odd for a white shirt.

The square with the circle and dot is the US and Canada mark for cool temperature.

Use cool iron.

If you need to dry clean the item or want to then it should be done using PCE.

  Laundry Wash Result Problems

If you have problems with results from your washing machine, damage or whatever then the first thing to do is consult the pages on here. There is enough information on this website to work out as close to 100% of cause and reason for any problems that people will ever encounter with laundry as makes no odds.

Eliminate all the possibilities here before thinking that there may be some issue with your washing machine as chances are with virtually all laundry damage, it’s not your washing machine that’s the problem. If you don’t please understand that many manufacturers will not accept the cost of service calls made for use issues, this is not covered by your warranty and you may be charged for getting the advice you can find here yourself, for free.

If you do insist on placing a service call thinking that your machine has a problem the service technician will, in all probability, not be able to find fault with your washing machine when he tests it. This is because he will test the machine mechanically, functionally and electrically but he cannot test the use or replicate many of the most common issues people have with laundry being damaged. He can only test the machine is operating to the specification as it should do, this is commonly referred to as a “spec test”.

If your machine passes that test then it is almost a sure thing that the machine is okay, the problem will lie with the garments or laundry or be a use issue.

What happens then is that either sample of the damage or photos of it are sent to someone that will be able to identify the problem. Often they will refer to articles such as those you see on UK Whitegoods to determine the probable cause or causes.

  How You Can Get Help

To offer support in helping people to determine the cause of laundry problems just like the experts we mentioned, we use the forums.

It’s fast, free, easy and normally someone will pick up on the post that can assist you often with a few experts chipping in if needed. Just register if you don’t have an account, we don’t mail you, send you spam or any of that stuff.

Post up your question and give images if you possibly can and the guys in the forums will do the rest for you.

Cost you nothing, might save you some embarrassment or worse, a charge for a service visit that wasn’t needed.

Bed Sheets At 30?
I have recently bought some new bed sheets and the care label says to wash at 30 degrees and do not tumble dry. If I follow the care label, am I inviting bed bugs?? I\'m not sure what to do to keep bugs/mites/bacteria at bay whilst also not damaging the fabric? Can anyone suggest something?

Lydia Hubbard
Synthetic items stretch on Synthetic washing cycle
Hi, I have a new Miele WDA101 and an concerned because it stretches t-shirts, pants etc that have the synthetic wash label (one bar under symbol), making them noticeably bigger, mainly shorter and wider. It also tends to leave articles creased.I use Minimum Iron and Shirts cycles, both 40degrees, with 900 or under spin cycles. I have asked for an engineer to test my machine (he\'s coming mid-week) but I reckon his will be a mechanical test and he will not agree that the machine has a fault. Previously I had a Bosch and was able to use a synthetic cycle for practically all the family\'s clothes (I used delicate where labels indicated that), so I am disappointed with the results of a much more expensive machine. Customer care at Miele suggest I should use a cotton cycle (less water) and this will resolve things, but I think following wash labels should give the right results. Can you advise me please?
I still regret that the HLCC (Home Laundry Cosultation Council) ie Wash Tub number symbols were discontinued. I would like to see a system where if it has no underline, the temperature would be the same as the Wash Tub number, but if it was a single underline, the machine could have 41 ie 40 one bar, etc and if it was say 40 plus two underlines, it should be 42, ie 40 2 bar to make garment sorting easier.

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