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Symbols of care: Clothing labels may now use emblems to show a safe way to clean garment.

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Do you read the care labels before you buy clothing? Do you follow those instructions when it comes time for cleaning? If so, you are not alone. According to a recent survey by the Soap and Detergent Association, four out of five consumers pay attention to clothing care labels.

But some changes are coming in how those labels will look. On July 1, the Federal Trade Commission began allowing apparel manufacturers to use symbols instead of written instructions on garment-care labels. You may start to see these symbols soon. For the next 18 months, however, garments that have care labels with symbols must be accompanied by additional information that shows both symbols and written instructions so consumers will be able to get used to the new symbols.The symbols were developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials, using a system that is simple and easy to learn. They use schematic representations of parts of the cleaning process: wash, bleach, tumble dry, iron and dry clean. And then codes of dots and lines. Two things to remember: more dots means more heat; more bars means more gentle handling required.

The new symbols are designed to benefit manufacturers working in a global market. For example, using one label for the three NAFTA countries (Canada, Mexico and the U.S.) will reduce manufacturing and inventory costs.

To help consumers understand the new symbols, the FTC and the Soap and Detergent Association answer some of the most commonly asked questions:

Q. Are the symbols required?

A. No. Symbols may be used by manufacturers who desire to do so. The only requirement is that until Dec. 31, 1998, manufacturers who use the symbols must also provide written instructions. The written instructions do not have to be included on the permanently attached label, but they must come with the garment. Manufacturers can use hang tags, package inserts or package labels to provide the explanatory language.

And manufacturers can continue to provide written care instructions on labels if they want to.

Q. When is a care label required?

A. Care labels are required on most textile clothing. They are not required on clothing made primarily of suede or leather, footwear, items for the head and hands such as hats and gloves or on household items such as sheets and towels. However, many manufacturers of these items provide care information voluntarily.

The care label must be attached firmly to a garment, be easy to find and readable for the average life of the garment. Some garments have more than one piece; if they are sold separately or require different care, they must have their own labels.

Q. What should the label say?

A. Manufacturers are required to give one safe cleaning method - regardless of how many other safe methods could be used. The label must list any necessary warnings about that cleaning method. For example, it must say whether any step of the care method - washing, bleaching, drying, ironing or dry cleaning - could harm the garment or other items cleaned with it.

Q. Does that mean a garment labeled "washable" can also be dry cleaned?

A. Not necessarily. The label has to list one safe method of cleaning but does not have to warn about unsafe cleaning methods. However, sometimes this information is provided voluntarily ("do not dry clean," for example). To be safe, follow the instructions given.

Q. What about trim.

A. Care instructions apply to all permanently attached parts of the garment, such as buttons, lining or decorative trim. Labels that say "dry clean only, exclusive of decorative trim" do not meet legal standards.

Q. What if I have problems?

A. If you followed the washing instructions and your red-and-white shirt is now pink or if your garment was dry cleaned according to the care instructions and is damaged, return it to the retailer and ask for an exchange or refund. If the retailer won't cooperate, ask for the manufacturer's name and address and write to the company.

In your letter, describe the garment and list information from the labels and tags. Include the full name and address of the retailer.

You can also contact the FTC, Consumer Response Center, Washington, DC 20580. Although the FTC can't resolve individual disputes, the information you provide may indicate a pattern of law violations requiring action by the commission.

The FTC would also like to know if you've purchased clothing without a care label. Please include the name and address of the retailer and the manufacturer.

Q. Can I remove the label?

A. Care labels must be attached when you buy clothing. The recommended care could influence your purchasing decision. For example, you may want to avoid "dry-clean-only" items if you're concerned about cleaning costs.

Although you can remove a care label, you risk losing important information about the proper care of your garment.