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The first time you wash a new item of clothing, put it in with the best of intentions – making sure to lay it flat to dry or wash it at a specific temperature. That is, if you can decipher the care label.

While some clothing labels have written instructions such as “dry clean only”, others just contain a series of symbols that look like some sort of secret code. Instead of washing the shirt according to the directions on the label, you might just put it in the washing machine with everything else.

But Wayne Edelman, CEO of Meurice clothing care– also known as the “Stainmaster” – says that’s a bad idea. “Care labels, while not always correct, give consumers guidance on how to wash, dry, and iron most items,” he tells Lifehacker.

Luckily Edelman put one together Instructions for deciphering clothing care labels to help us figure out what exactly to do. Here’s what you should know.

Why you shouldn’t ignore care labels

First, here’s Edelman with some background:

It is important to read the care labels as proper washing and drying practices will extend the life of your clothes and household items. Washing a silk item according to a cotton towel washing profile can permanently damage the item, as can washing an item marked “Dry Clean Only”. If you put something “just hang to dry” in the dryer, you can likely ruin the item.

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How to decipher clothing care labels

Edelmans Instructions are quite extensiveFor now, here are some examples of symbols on clothing care labels and what they mean:

Water temperature

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Screenshot: Meurice clothing care

  1. Wash cold (80º)
  2. Wash warm (105º)
  3. Wash hot (120º)

If there are additional points, four represent 140 degrees, five represent 160 degrees, and six represent 200 degrees.

Washing instructions

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Screenshot: Meurice clothing care

  1. Machine wash
  2. Handwash only
  3. Do not wash
  4. Only chemical cleaning
  5. Do not dry clean

In these instructions you will find out what type of laundry is required and whether the item is machine washable or not.

Drying instructions

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Screenshot: Meurice clothing care

  1. Dryer allowed
  2. Do not tumble dry
  3. Hang to dry
  4. Lay flat to dry
  5. Don’t wring it out

Cycle type

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Screenshot: Meurice clothing care

  1. Normal cycle
  2. Permanent pressure
  3. Sensitive cycle

While these instructions apply to washers and dryers, some dryers do not have these options. In this case, Edelman says, “think of normal as high heat, permanent press as medium heat, and tender as low heat”.