Care labels can be crucial when consumers shop for clothing. Some look for the convenience of dry cleaning, while others prefer the economy of washable garments. This guide helps you comply with the FTC’s Care Labeling Rule.
Table of Contents
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces the Care Labeling Rule which requires manufacturers and importers to attach care instructions to garments. The FTC has information about other Rules relating to labeling textile products for fiber content, country of origin and manufacturer identity.
Care labels often are a deciding factor when consumers shop for clothing. While some consumers look for the convenience of drycleaning, others prefer the economy of washable garments. In fact, surveys show that consumers want washing instructions. Some manufacturers try to reach both markets with garments that can be cleaned by either method. The Rule lets you provide more than one set of care instructions, if you have a reasonable basis for each instruction. Some manufacturers provide instructions for both methods but add, "For best results, dryclean." This tells consumers that the garment can be washed without damage, but drycleaning may be better for appearance and durability. If truthful and substantiated, care instructions like these are acceptable.
The Care Labeling Rule requires manufacturers and importers to attach care instructions to clothing and some piece goods.
- manufacturers and importers of textile wearing apparel
- manufacturers and importers of piece goods sold to consumers for making wearing apparel
- any person or organization that directs or controls the manufacturing or importing of textile wearing apparel or piece goods for making wearing apparel
- Textile apparel worn to cover or protect the body
- Exempt apparel: shoes, gloves and hats
- Excluded items:
- Handkerchiefs, belts, suspenders and neckties
- Non-woven garments made for one-time use
- Piece goods sold for making apparel at home
- Exempt piece goods:
- Marked manufacturers' remnants of up to 10 yards when the fiber content is not known and cannot be determined easily
- Trim up to five inches wide
- Exempt piece goods:
Instructions and Warnings
Covered manufacturers and importers must:
- provide complete instructions about regular care for the garment, or provide warnings if the garment cannot be cleaned without harm
- ensure that, if followed, care labeling instructions will cause no substantial harm to the product; and
- warn consumers about certain procedures that they may assume to be consistent with the instructions on the label, but that would harm the product. For example, if a pair of pants is labeled for washing, consumers may assume they can iron them. If the pants would be harmed by ironing, the label should read, "Do not iron."
You must have a reasonable basis for all care instructions and warnings — that is, reliable evidence to support the care instructions. For example, you can’t say "Dryclean Only" unless you have proof that washing will harm the garment.
Reliable evidence depends on several factors:
- In some cases, experience and industry expertise serve as a reasonable basis.
- In other cases — for example, if you use a dye that is known to bleed, or beads that are known to be damaged in drycleaning — you may need test results that show the garment can be cleaned as recommended without being damaged.
- When a garment contains several components, you must have reliable evidence showing that the entire garment won’t be damaged when cleaned as directed. Results of tests on garment components can serve as a reasonable basis as long as you have reliable evidence supporting the care instructions for the garment as a whole. For example, testing the components of a garment is not an adequate basis for a "wash" instruction if the color of one part bleeds onto another when a consumer washes the finished garment.
When to Label Garments
- Domestic manufacturers must attach care labels to finished products before they sell them.
- Importers must ensure that care labels are attached to products before they sell them in the U.S., but care labels don't have to be attached to products when they enter the U.S.
- Attach labels so consumers can easily see or find them at the point of sale.
- If packaging gets in the way, place additional care information on the outside of the package or on a hang-tag attached to the product.
- Labels must be attached permanently and securely.
- Labels must be legible during the useful life of the product.
- A garment with two or more parts that is sold as a unit needs only one care label if the care instructions are the same for all parts. Attach the label to the major piece of the suit. If the suit pieces require different care instructions or — like coordinates — are designed to be sold separately, each item must have its own care label.
Labeling Piece Goods
Manufacturers and importers must provide care information clearly and conspicuously on the end of each roll or bolt of fabric. The information should apply to the fabric on the roll or bolt, not to items the consumer might add to the fabric, like trim, lining or buttons.
These items don't need permanent care labels, but must have conspicuous temporary labels at the point of sale:
- Totally reversible clothing without pockets.
- Products that may be washed, bleached, dried, ironed and drycleaned by the harshest procedures available, as long as the instruction "Wash or dryclean, any normal method," appears on a temporary label.
- Products that have been granted exemptions on grounds that care labels will harm their appearance or usefulness. Apply for this exemption in writing to the Secretary of the FTC. Your request must include a labeled sample of the product and a full statement explaining why the request should be granted.
These items don't need care instructions:
- Products sold to institutional buyers for commercial use; for example, uniforms sold to employers for employee use in job-related activities, but not bought by the employees.
- Garments custom-made of material provided by the consumer.
- Products granted exemptions under Section (c)(2) of the original rule because they were completely washable and sold at retail for $3 or less. If the product no longer meets this standard, the exemption is automatically revoked.
Failing to provide reliable care instructions and warnings for the useful life of an item is a violation of the FTC Act. Violators are subject to enforcement actions and penalties of up to $16,000 for each offense. In enforcement actions, the FTC contends that each mislabeled garment is a violation. Since 1990, the FTC has brought 16 enforcement actions; 15 were resolved by settlements and one was litigated. Penalties have ranged as high as $300,000.
Labels for clothing must have a washing or drycleaning instruction. If an item can be washed and drycleaned, the label needs only one of these instructions. Remember that consumers like having washing instructions for items that can be washed. If you prefer, give instructions for both washing and drycleaning.
Sometimes, because of the particular combination of components, a garment can’t be safely washed or drycleaned, but a manufacturer still wants to market it. The label on such a garment must say "Do not wash — Do not dryclean."
We recommend, but don't require, that you use the terms defined in the Rule's Appendix A Glossary when they apply.
You may use the care symbols from the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) designated as ASTM Standard D5489-96c Standard Guide for Care Symbols for Care Instructions on Textile Products, in place of words, but the symbols must fulfill the requirements of the Rule. These symbols are similar, but not identical, to the symbols designated as an international standard by the International Standards Organization (ISO) and used in many European countries.
Although only the ASTM symbols are approved for use in the United States, in September 2012 the Commission proposed amending the Rule to allow the use of the updated ASTM symbols in ASTM Standard D5489-07, and the ISO symbols in ISO Standard 3758:2005(E).
Washing Instructions: Five Elements
One: Washing by hand or by machine
The label must say whether the product should be washed by hand or machine, and give a water temperature setting if regular use of hot water will harm the product.
If all commercially available bleaches can be used on a regular basis without harming the product, the label doesn’t have to mention bleach.
If using chlorine bleach on a regular basis will harm the product, but using non-chlorine bleach on a regular basis won’t, the label must say, "Only non-chlorine bleach, when needed."
If all commercially available bleaches would harm the product when used on a regular basis, the label must say, "No bleach" or "Do not bleach."
The label must say whether the product should be dried by machine or another method. Unless regular use of high temperature will harm the product when machine dried, it’s not necessary to indicate a temperature setting.
If a product needs repeated ironing, the care label must give ironing information. If regular use of a hot iron won’t harm a product, it’s not necessary to indicate a temperature setting.
If you have a reasonable expectation that a consumer could use a care procedure that will harm the product, the label must contain a warning like "Do not," "No," or "Only," to warn against the harmful procedure. For example, if a garment will be harmed by ironing, and you expect a consumer could occasionally “touch up” the garment, the label should state, "Do not iron."
If a care procedure on one product could harm another product that is washed with it, the label must include a warning. For example, if an item is not colorfast, the label must say "Wash with like colors" or "Wash separately."
Warnings aren’t necessary for alternative procedures that could be harmful. For example, if the instructions state "Dry flat," it's not necessary to state "Do not tumble dry."
You may use a simple "dryclean" instruction under two conditions:
- If all commercially available types of solvent can be used, the label doesn't have to mention any particular type. But if any solvents would harm the product, you must mention a safe solvent. For example, "Dryclean, petroleum solvent."
- If the drycleaning process, as defined in the Rule, can be used on the garment with no modifications, you may use a simple “dryclean.”
If any part of the drycleaning process would harm the product, the "dryclean" instruction must include a warning to avoid or modify that part of the process. The label must use "Do not," "No," "Only," or other clear wording. For example, if steam would damage a garment, the label should say "Dryclean. No steam."
If the normal drycleaning process must be modified the label may say, "Professionally dryclean. No steam." The label should not use "Professionally dryclean" if there’s no need to modify the normal drycleaning process. By itself, "Professionally dryclean" is not an adequate instruction. The label should use “Professionally dryclean” only with instructions for modifying the process; for example, “Professionally dryclean. No steam.”
Remember that "Dryclean Only" warns that the garment can’t be washed. For any warning on the label, you must have evidence that the process warned against will damage the garment. Garments may be labeled "Dryclean Only" only if you have evidence that washing will damage the garment.
Q. May care instructions be on the back of another permanent label sewn into the garment?
A. You can put care information on the reverse side of a permanent label if only one end of the permanent label is sewn into the garment and the consumer has easy access to the front and back of the label. The front of the label doesn't have to say "Care on reverse."
Q. Does each piece of an ensemble, suit or other multi-piece garment need a care label?
A. A garment that has two parts or more and is always sold as a unit needs only one care label if the care instructions are the same for all the pieces. The label should be attached to the major piece of the suit. If the suit pieces require different care instructions or are designed to be sold separately, each item must have its own care label.
Q. May care instructions be printed directly on the product?
A. Yes, if the instructions meet the Rule's requirements of permanence and legibility.
Q. May care instructions be printed on the "fiber content" label?
A. Yes, if the instructions meet the Rule's requirements of permanence and legibility.
Q. What's the minimum washing instruction that can appear on a care label?
A. A minimum washing instruction would include a method of washing and a method of drying, like "Machine wash. Tumble dry." This minimal wording means:
- the product can be machine washed and tumble dried at any temperature
- ironing isn't necessary
- any type of bleach can be used and
- no warnings are required.
All elements of a proper washing instruction — washing, drying, ironing, bleaching and warnings — must be considered.
Q. Generally, when wash-and-wear garments are removed promptly from the dryer, they don't need ironing. But if garments aren't removed promptly, they might wrinkle and require some pressing with a cool iron. Does a care instruction have to address this?
A. Yes. The Rule requires ironing instructions if ironing is needed on a regular basis to preserve the product’s appearance, or as a special warning when you expect a consumer to use an iron and a hot iron would harm the product. In these cases, the instruction could read "Cool iron, if needed."
Q. Is it proper if the bleach portion of a washing instruction says "Do not use chlorine bleach"?
A. No. A care label that says only "Do not use chlorine bleach" is unacceptable. If using chlorine bleach frequently would harm the product, but using non-chlorine bleach would not, the label must say, "Only non-chlorine bleach, when needed." This instruction warns consumers that chlorine bleach isn’t safe for regular use, but non-chlorine bleach is. For clarity, the care label may say "Only non-chlorine bleach, when needed. Do not use chlorine bleach."
Q. Does the Rule permit a care label that says "Wash in warm water. Block to dry. Do not use bleach."?
A. No. This instruction is not complete. The Rule requires washing instructions to state whether the product should be washed by hand or machine.
Q. Does a care instruction have to consider components like linings, trim, buttons or zippers?
A. Yes. Care instructions must include all components of the product, including non-detachable linings, trim and other details. The instructions should contain any special considerations for components as a warning; for example, "Remove trim," or "Close zipper." A detachable component, like a slip-out liner, must be labeled separately if it requires a different care procedure than the main product.
Q. When may "Dryclean only" be used?
A. "Dryclean only" may be used when the garment can be drycleaned safely by the normal process, using any drycleaning solvent. The instruction indicates that the garment can't be safely washed. When you use "Dryclean only," you must have a reasonable basis for both the drycleaning instruction and the warning against washing.
Q. Is the single word "Dryclean" a sufficient care instruction?
A. Yes. A drycleaning instruction generally must include a type of solvent that can be used safely (say, perchlorethylene or petroleum); if any type of commercially available solvent can be used, it’s not necessary to name a type of solvent. A care instruction with only the word "Dryclean" means any solvent may be used safely in a process that includes machine cleaning, moisture addition to solvent of up to 75% relative humidity, hot tumble drying up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, and restoration by steam press or steam-air finishing.
Q. When should "Professionally dryclean" be used?
A. Use "Professionally dryclean" when the normal drycleaning process must be modified to dryclean the product safely. "Professionally dryclean" is not an adequate instruction by itself. It must be accompanied by the modification(s) necessary to make the drycleaning process safe. For example, "Professionally dryclean, reduce moisture, short cycle, tumble warm, no steam" would mean any commercially available solvent could be used, the moisture addition to the solvent should be reduced, the cleaning time should be reduced, the warm setting should be used for tumble drying, and steam should not be used in pressing or finishing.
Q. Must symbols be used?
A. No. Symbols are optional as long as care instructions are on the label. If you choose to use symbols without words, you might want to include information about the meaning of the symbols — perhaps on a hangtag or in your catalogue — to be sure your customers understand them.
Q. May the system of symbols used in Europe and designated as an international standard by the International Standards Organization (ISO) be used?
A. No. The symbols you use must be those developed by the ASTM and designated as ASTM Standard D5489-96c. In September 2012, the Commission proposed amending the Rule to allow the use of the symbols in ASTM Standard D5489-07, and the ISO symbols in ISO Standard 3758:2005(E).
Labeling Piece Goods
Q. What does "certain piece goods" mean?
A. Under the Rule, “certain piece goods” are fabrics sold at retail on a piece-by-piece basis from bolts, pieces or rolls for use in home sewing of textile wearing apparel. The term "fabric" means any material woven, knitted, felted or otherwise produced from, or in combination with, any natural or manufactured fiber, yarn or substitute.
Two categories of piece goods are excluded from the Rule:
- trim up to 5 inches wide, like ribbon, lace, rick-rack, tape, belting, binding or braid and
- manufacturer's remnants up to 10 yards long when the remnants are clearly and conspicuously marked as "pound goods" or "fabric of undetermined origin," and the fiber content of the remnants is unknown and can't be readily determined.
If a remnant's fiber content is known, it's not excluded from the Rule. Remnants created at the retail level, or by the manufacturer at the retailer’s request aren’t excluded either.
Q. Manufacturers and importers must put care information for piece goods "on the end of each bolt or roll." Is there any specific location for this information?
A. Place care information on:
- the selvage of the material
- the end of the "board" on which the goods are wound a tag attached to the selvage or the "board end" or
- on any other position at the end of the roll where a consumer can find and read it easily
If a tag is used, it should be attached so that it won’t separate from the bolt until the last piece is sold.
Exemptions to the Rule
Q. The Rule exempts products sold to institutional buyers for commercial use. Are rental service companies exempt as well?
A. Yes. In addition to rental service companies, institutional buyers include hospitals, nursing homes, colleges and universities, local, state, and federal institutions, hotels, motels and other bulk purchasers of uniforms and employee work clothes.
Q. Is there any exemption that applies to an entire product line?
A. Yes. Hosiery products, including stockings, anklets, waist-high tights, panty hose and leg warmers, are exempt. Hosiery items don't need a permanent care label, but they must have care instructions on a hang tag, on the package or in another conspicuous place. This includes sheer hosiery of 50 denier or less. Hosiery that retails for $3 or less and that can be washed and dried at hot settings without damage doesn't need a label.
Q. Must a drycleaner clean a garment according to the instructions on the care label?
A. No, but using a care method not specified on a care label may be risky. Clothing labeled as washable may not dryclean satisfactorily. Many local drycleaners have facilities for properly washing and finishing washable garments, but customers who ask for a method of cleaning not listed on the care label may be asked to sign a consent form explaining that the drycleaner and the customer have discussed the potential risks of cleaning the garment. With or without the consent form, when drycleaners accept garments for cleaning, they are obligated to clean garments professionally, to the best of their ability.
Q. Does a care label that states "Professionally wetclean" comply with the Care Labeling Rule?
A. No. The subject was of considerable interest during the last amendment proceedings, and is discussed at length in the Care Labeling Rule Statement of Basis and Purpose. In September 2012, the Commission proposed amending the Rule to allow a wetcleaning instruction for items that can be professionally wetcleaned.
Your Opportunity to Comment
The National Small Business Ombudsman and 10 Regional Fairness Boards collect comments from small businesses about federal compliance and enforcement activities. Each year, the Ombudsman evaluates the conduct of these activities and rates each agency's responsiveness to small businesses. Small businesses can comment to the Ombudsman without fear of reprisal. To comment, go to www.sba.gov/ombudsman.