What is tumble dry? Garment Care Labels, explained!

What is tumble dry? Garment care labels explained!

It’s a great idea to learn how to best clean and care for the clothing you love. The only problem is, the rules around washing and drying certain fabrics can feel overly complicated! The last thing you want to do is accidentally shrink your new favorite sweater. 

Luckily most garments produced today include garment care instructions on the interior label. But because labels are so small, most care instructions are denoted using symbols instead of words. 

Free List of Green Cleaning Tools and Ingredients

So how do you know whether or not to tumble dry your garment? And what is tumble dry anyhow? Below I’m sharing what each dryer symbol means as well as how to dry your garments when they don’t include a care label.

What is “Tumble Dry”?

If a garment is labeled “tumble dry,” all that means is you are free to dry that item in a dryer vs. air dry flat or line dry. 

With that said, a tumble dry care label doesn’t mean you HAVE to dry that item in a dryer. Air drying is still a gentler, eco-friendly drying option. Plus, white or light colored fabrics that are air dried outside in the sun will benefit from the sun’s natural bleaching properties.

If you have a stained garment, you should avoid heat drying of any kind (see my guide for removing common stains). But tumble drying garments in a dryer will ultimately save you time, which makes it a popular choice.

Common Garment Care Symbols for Tumble Dry

Drying symbols on garment care labels explained

The square with a circle inside is the universal symbol for “tumble dry.” This symbol general means you can add the garment to your dryer at any heat level and it will fare just fine. 

Occasionally, garment care labels will also denote the heat limit for tumble drying. I’ll detail each of those symbols below.

Tumble Dry Low Heat

Tumble dry low heat

If your care label includes a square with a circle inside and a single dot in the middle, that means your garment can be safely tumble dried in low to no heat. 

Tumble Dry Medium Heat

Tumble dry medium heat

If your care label includes a square with a circle inside and a two dots in the middle, that means your garment can be safely tumble dried in medium to low heat. 

Tumble Dry High Heat

Tumble dry high heat

If your care label includes a square with a circle inside and three dots in the middle, that means your garment can be safely tumble dried in high heat.

Dry Flat, Drip Dry, and Line Dry

Clothing care labels - air dry symbols

Symbols such as a square with a circle in the middle with a big X over the top mean do not tumble dry (air dry instead).

Other symbols in this category include a square with three vertical lines (drip dry) and a square with a curve under the top line that to me looks like an envelope (line dry). 

Some fabrics will lose their shape if they’re line dried, and for those you’ll often find a symbol that looks like a square with a horizontal line. This symbol means dry the garment flat to prevent any strange puckering in the fabric. This is how I dry most sweaters!

Printable Garment Care Label Guide

Want to make sure you use the correct settings on your washer and dryer when tackling your next load of laundry?

Grab my free printable PDF! Print this out, add it to a clipboard or pop it in a frame and hang it on the wall of your laundry room. 

This free printable guide will serve as a helpful reminder for you as well as other family members you may be delegating laundry tasks to…

How to Dry Garments without Care Labels

So your garment doesn’t have a care label with any wash or dry symbols. This isn’t a big problem so long as you have a good idea of what fabric you’re working with.

Fabrics that Cannot be Tumble Dried

Here are some common fabrics you should only line dry or lay flat to dry:

  • Silk
  • Wool
  • Cashmere
  • Lacey delicate items
  • Bras with underwire

I also tend to line dry athletic clothes made with stretchy, synthetic fabrics or microfiber fabrics to prevent pilling. 

Then there are fabrics that you can technically tumble dry, but should be wary of shrinking:

  • Linen
  • Cotton (cotton synthetic blends will generally shrink less when you dry them)
  • Denim

Basic Dryer Maintenance Tips

If you regularly tumble dry your laundry, there are a few basic maintenance things to keep in mind.

Opt for Dryer Balls vs Dryer Sheets

Wool dryer balls will reduce drying time and static cling on fabrics. They are also reusable, compostable, and therefore an eco-friendly alternative to dryer sheets.

Dryer sheets will reduce static cling but they also leave a chemical coating on fabrics to make them feel “soft.” Dryer sheets also leave the same chemical coating on your dryer lint trap, which if left unattended can become a serious fire hazard!

Read more about why I love using wool dryer balls (and the specific ones I use) here.

Clean Your Lint Trap

Basic lint trap maintenance includes removing lint after every single dryer load. But that’s not always enough!

It’s a good idea to actually wash your dryer lint trap regularly to make sure it’s filtering properly. Grab your vacuum cleaner and vacuum excess lint from your machine as well. Learn more about how to clean a dryer lint trap here.

Clean the Exhaust Duct Every 2 Years

Lastly, it’s a good idea to clean the dryer exhaust ducting every other year or so. Unless you’re a confident DIY-er, I recommend hiring this service out to a professional. Leaving the dryer ducts unattended will become a serious fire hazard over time!

Free printable clothing care label guide

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