Care labelling – The Basics

27 May 2021

Roger Cawood and Richard Neale join forces to spell out the basics on care labels and to help ‘translate’ accurately the often contradictory and careless instructions sewn into garments by manufacturers

By law, all garments sold in the UK and the EU have to carry Fibre Content labels but this is not the case with Care Labelling. While the overwhelming number of garments are sold with a care label attached, the manufacturer has no obligation, other than moral, to provide any aftercare information for the cleaner. Regrettably, the standard and accuracy of information provided by many manufacturers, for one reason or another, can only be described as poor. This is particularly the case with some designer and high value garments where the cleaner may face disproportionate (and often unjustified) claims for compensation, if care label information is misleading or inaccurate.

BS (British Standards) and ISO (International Standards Organisation) are sometimes referred to with the prefix BS EN ISO (where EN is the European Norm). These standards include pictorial symbols which they continue to update and amend, as defined in BS EN ISO 3758. These symbols are used to define cleaning processes (both drycleaning and wetcleaning) such as  and the wash symbols such as  that we are all familiar with. While the symbols are used to support aftercare information by the majority of garment manufacturers, this is not always the case; some just use an all encompassing statement such as ‘Dry Clean Only’. The BS ISO standards (BS ISO 3175) that define test methods for drycleaning/ washing/wetcleaning ensure that garment types submitted by manufacturers for testing against the standards will respond well and reliably to cleaning in the specified solvent wet or dry. Testing to BS ISO standards has to be carried out by an Accredited Testing House, which will then issue a numbered test certificate confirming a satisfactory response to a specified process.

Testing against the standards is perceived as expensive and many manufacturers do not submit their products to an accredited testing House for BS/ISO testing; this is particularly the case with high value and designer garments where very short production runs with limited numbers are common. The majority of manufacturers employ some form of ‘in house’ testing, while others may send garment examples to a local cleaner in an attempt to confirm their response to a particular cleaning process! Regrettably, most manufacturers use the symbols even though they have not submitted garments for BS ISO testing. This is not illegal and explains the fact that it is not unusual for some garments that carry the symbols to fail or to not respond well in cleaning. However, it is important for the cleaner to understand that irrespective of whether or not the garment type has been BS ISO certified, if the symbols are used, then the garment must conform to the standard and provided that the cleaner has used the correct cleaning process, if the garment fails in cleaning it will generally be held to be the responsibility of the retailer/ manufacturer.


There is no doubt that designer items potentially present by far the greatest risk to the cleaner and particularly to wetcleaners, many of whom disregard specific aftercare instructions. We strongly recommend that the value is established with the customer during reception and a clear record made of the pre-clean condition. If you are not completely confident about cleaning and stain removal do not accept the item.

You should also be aware that over the years some care label symbols have represented different cleaning conditions; (solvents R113 and hydrocarbon should be used) being a good example (see ‘Contradictory information’); so if you are going to clean a very old garment check up to ensure you can process it safely. When faced with a claim, if the care label information is suspect and the retailer/ manufacturer denies responsibility, demand that they provide the name and address of the Testing House that did the testing and the test certificate number. If this information cannot be provided the garment type has probably not been tested against a BS ISO 3175 standard.

  • If you have problems you would like the authors to examine please send with a good quality, high resolution (300dpi/1MB at least) pic of the item to
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Poor presentation

If care label information is to be communicated effectively to the cleaner and, in the case of water-based processes, to the housewife and launderer, it must be clear, concise and easily read. With regard to the latter, in recent years the standard of presentation has deteriorated considerably and in very many cases today can justifiably be described as sub-standard. A very high proportion of the garments sold in High Street stores today carry care labels that are so small that many people would be unable to read them without the aid of a magnifying glass. This is unacceptable, both to the purchaser and (particularly) to cleaning staff who, in a busy production environment can easily make mistakes, when faced with a care label that at best they have great difficulty in deciphering.

Typical labelling problems

a. Poor presentation - very small totally inadequate labels

b. Poor durability - fading symbols and text

c. Contradictory cleaning information - diametrically opposed symbols and text.

d. Incorrect display of cleaning symbols - some manufacturers use incorrect symbols

e. Inadequate information or inappropriate instructions

f. No care label information - or care labels removed

Poor durability

While durability is important for all care labels, in the case of washable items that may be processed repeatedly in say a care home environment, if the label information fades and cannot be read the items can be subject to damage or complete failure well before the end of their useful life. While manufacturers are not obliged to provide aftercare information, if they do it should be clear and enduring so that items can be safely processed throughout their useful life.

This is a thorny issue but in our opinion it is fair and reasonable to say that if care labels fade well before items reach the end of their life, the customer could be covered under the Trade Descriptions Act as not being fit for purpose! BS EN ISO 3758 will support you in this.

Contradictory information

When faced with a care label that gives conflicting information and they don’t come any worse than this one which is an older label (contradictory labels of this nature are still in circulation) with a symbol instructing 40C wash only to be followed by MACHINE WASH COLD WATER. The label also shows the item can be circle P  (perc) drycleaned which is then contradicted by DO NOT DRY CLEAN. You have several options.

1. Use your professional judgement to accept or reject the item.

2. Assess risk of ruining the item or destroying your relationship with the customer. You might accept the garment at ‘owner’s risk’.

3. Refer your customer to the retailer with a view to them seeking a justifiable refund.

Incorrect symbols

It is not uncommon to find that cleaning symbols are not correctly configured. In the photograph it will be seen that circle P  has been crossed out. This symbol does not form part of the care labelling code and its use inevitably casts some doubt on the validity of testing for the remaining aftercare symbols.

Our advice – proceed with caution.

Inadequate information

In many cases garment manufacturers use the wrong symbol and/or do not provide supporting information to ensure the cleaner is aware of important cleaning or finishing issues. This silk and acetate velvet top is a good example.

This is a delicate fabric therefore the symbol should be circle P underlined  which indicates to the drycleaner reduced mechanical action and/or reduced moisture and/or reduced drying temperature. This should be accompanied by finishing instructions such as ‘do not iron’  and ‘steam gently using ironing surface steam’(no symbol available). Note the ‘do not tumble dry symbol’ . As tumble drying is part of the drycleaning process, this could cause confusion! Once again, our advice is to proceed with caution.

No manufacturer, fibre content or care label

The cleaner needs to be particularly alert in cases where a garment/item is unlabelled. This often means that the item has been home-made, or the garment might be a factory “second”. In both cases the cleaner needs to proceed with caution. For example, use a burning test to assess fibre content and tests to assess dye fastness in drycleaning solvent and water.

The cleaner should also be aware that where the fibre content or care label has been removed, this may have been done by a customer who has found cleaners have been unwilling to accept the garment due to concerns raised by the nature of the aftercare information. The care label above is a good example.

EASY READ: A clear, concise and easily read label
GLASSY EYED: To read the text on this label we needed a magnifying glass
Contradictory information
Incorrect symbols
Inadequate information
No manufacturer, fibre content or care label

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