As if laundry isn't hard enough to keep under control, there are those little labels with tiny instructions and inscrutable hieroglyphics that we're supposed to obey. But, seriously, who has time to sort not only by color and clothing type but by meticulous instructions?! Many of us throw all caution to the wind, tossing everything together in the washer and dryer, and crossing our fingers for the best, but its better to know when we should heed those shout-y tags and when it's okay to ignore them.
Garment care tags are required by the Federal Trade Commission and governed by a set of intricate rules about fiber content, country of origin, and care instructions. But here's the secret to safely flouting care instructions: knowing they are only one suggested method of cleaning the garment that won't cause harm.
Many times, the instructions chosen to be included on the tag stem from marketing considerations. For instance, the manufacturer may think that people would rather dry clean an item so they put "Dry clean" on the tag; but this simply means that the item can be dry cleaned with no harm, not that it must be dry cleaned.
To break laundry tag rules with impunity, however, you have to know when you shouldn't break them. If your laundry tag includes strong words like "do not," "only," or "always," disregarding the instructions can lead to irreversible consequences. As the FTC page Clothes Captioning: Complying with the Care Labeling Rule states, "For any warning on the label, [the manufacturer] must have evidence that the process warned against will damage the garment."
With these caveats in mind, here's when you can break the rules:
1. When you want your washer to hand wash for you
When a tag says "hand wash," it's usually okay to throw it in the washer on the gentle cycle.
2. When you don't want to dry clean and you don't have to
If there's an "only," or a symbol that's just an empty circle, that means your garment will most likely be harmed if you wash it. But if a tag says "dry clean," you could be just fine hand washing it or tossing it in a gentle cycle and hanging it to dry.
3. When you're sure a garment is colorfast
"Wash separately in cold water" can be disregarded once you're sure your item won't bleed. (You can test by running a wet cotton ball over it and seeing if there's any dye on it.)
4. When you want to be extra careful
If a tag specifies a washing temperature, it's always okay to wash it in cooler water. It may not get as clean, but you will be prolonging the life of your garment. In addition, you can always hand wash an item that's okay to machine wash, etc.
5. When you can't dry flat
"Dry flat" items can usually safely be hung to dry if it's done with care or if you want to stretch the garment a bit. Watch out for hanger marks or hang the garment over the bottom rung of the hanger.
6. If a load is extra dirty
It's probably okay to wash an item in a warmer water temperature than recommended, provided you've accounted for possible shrinkage that could occur with knits or loose weaves. You're technically choosing cleanliness over color preservation or the longevity of an item, but, occasionally, this is fine.
7. When you aren't too concerned
Convenience might be more important to you than making sure a $10 shirt doesn't pill or your camisoles stay sparkling white.