Need to know
- There are standard symbols for all sorts of things, and dishwashers are no different – but manufacturers can (and do) put their own unique spin on the controls
- You might see symbols on your plates and glasses that tell you they can be safely washed in a dishwasher, or conversely, telling you they can't
- Whether they're part of the standard or not, most dishwasher symbols are pretty intuitive, but as always, check your manual if you're ever in doubt
Ever wondered what the symbols on your dishwasher mean? There are some obvious ones – power and start are pretty universal across a wide range of electronics – but others might not be so clear.
While there's a standard for iconography that covers a whole range of common and not so common meanings (think the headlight or demister symbol in your car), there's no real compulsion for manufacturers to use them, nor do they cover every aspect of every dishwasher function, so decoding what they mean can be a little tricky.
In addition to symbols on your dishwasher, there are also symbols for things that go *in* your dishwasher, which can also vary greatly. If in doubt, it's always a good idea to check your dishwasher's manual to find out what the specific symbols mean.
In the meantime, here's a rough guide to what you're likely to see.
Unfortunately, there's no universally approved symbol to indicate a dish, plate or glass is robust enough to stand up to the harsh environment inside your dishwasher. But there are generally variations on a theme, with some common elements. A picture of plates or plates and glasses under what appears to be a shower (drops, dots or dashes) means the item can be safely washed in a dishwasher.
Some dishwasher safe symbols you might find on your plates and cups.
Adding to the confusion, there isn't a standard agreed-upon meaning of 'dishwasher safe'. Tableware manufacturers all have their own definitions and processes for determining what dishwasher safe means. And even if something is labelled 'dishwasher safe', this doesn't mean it won't still deteriorate over a lifetime of washes, but it does mean that deterioration will take months or years rather than days or weeks.
Dishwasher safe – top rack only.
Dishwasher safe – top rack only
You may see a symbol showing items on the top rack of a dishwasher. This indicates the higher temperatures and more intense washing action of the bottom rack could damage or destroy the item relatively quickly, so wash it up the top where it belongs.
Dishwasher safe glassware.
Dishwasher safe glassware
Dishwashers can be particularly inhospitable for delicate glassware – not only does it tend to be more fragile and prone to breakage, glassware can be susceptible to haziness due to the harsh chemicals in dishwasher detergent.
Luckily, many stemware manufacturers stamp a symbol onto their products – a wine glass with a water droplet next to it is common – to show they're confident their product can hold its own against the rigours of the dishwasher.
Not dishwasher safe – hand wash only.
Hand wash only / Not dishwasher safe
Just as there are many items that can be safely washed in a dishwasher, there are also many that can't – delicate, hand-painted china, lead crystal, non-stick pans and wooden items generally aren't dishwasher safe but there are many others as well.
Some manufacturers will be considerate enough to stamp their products with symbols warning you that they aren't dishwasher safe.
A dishwasher safe icon with a line through it means the item cannot be safely washed in the dishwasher. An illustration of a hand in a bucket of water, in the context of cutlery and crockery, means the item should be washed by hand.
Jump into pretty much any car and the symbols for the controls will likely be pretty familiar to you – headlights, demisters, battery, oil – you'll almost certainly recognise them at a glance, and that's because they're a part of a standard, ISO 7000 / IEC 60417 – Graphical Symbols for Use on Equipment, that's used all over the world. These symbols are designed to be clear, consistent, and readily identifiable.
But despite the standard, dishwasher manufacturers are free to use whatever design language they like when labelling programs and functions, so while there are a few that you'll almost definitely see on dispensers – like detergent, rinse aid and salt – there's a good chance you won't have seen the others before (rather, your dishwasher manufacturer will have designed their own to reflect their specific programs).
Below are some standard symbols you're likely to come across.
Main wash detergent.
Main wash detergent (5301)
You'll usually see this symbol of stylised lines looking like something being 'showered' on the lid of the detergent dispenser inside the door. No surprises, this is where you put your detergent, though if you're using a tablet or pod, you can just throw it straight into the tub without using the dispenser at all.
Final rinse agent – rinse aid.
Final rinse agent (5299)
A star or snowflake symbol means final rinse agent, or rinse aid. You'll typically see it on the lid of the rinse aid reservoir, located next to the detergent reservoir on the inside of the door.
What's rinse aid? It's a surfactant which aids drying by reducing the surface tension of water, so it sheets off your plates and glassware rather than forming water droplets.
If you see this symbol light up on the control panel, it's telling you to top up the rinse aid in your dishwasher (you can usually disable the warning light if you're using tablets with rinse aid built in – check your manual for details).
Regenerating agent – aka dishwasher salt.
Regenerating agent (5298)
The symbol for dishwasher salt is, unsurprisingly, a stylised 'S'. Not all dishwashers have the capacity to add salt, but if yours does then you're likely to see it on the lid of the salt reservoir inside the door or on the bottom of the tub.
You may also see it as a warning light on your dishwasher's display. As with rinse aid, this indicates you need to top up the reservoir in the machine, and as with rinse aid, you can usually disable this warning light if it's not relevant to your situation.
Why do dishwashers need salt? In Australia they probably don't – dishwasher salt softens hard water, and most water in Australia is quite soft already. If, however, you live in an area with hard or mineral-rich water, then salt will help your dishwasher's washing performance, reduce the likelihood of cloudy limescale buildup on your glassware, and help keep mineral deposits from forming inside the delicate workings of your appliance.
A word of caution: you can't just use regular table salt (it'll make a horrible mess). You need purpose-made dishwasher salt, available from your dishwasher retailer or online.
There are more standard or ISO symbols pertaining to dishwashers, though as mentioned these symbols aren't mandatory, so you may or may not see them on your machine – manufacturers can and do create their own symbols.
Badly soiled items.
Badly soiled items, cooking utensils (5294)
This symbol may be used to indicate more intensive wash zones within a dishwasher, where you should place pots, pans and other heavily soiled items for the most intensive cleaning.
It typically also means an intensive wash program with higher temperatures.
Normally soiled items.
Normally soiled items (5295)
This symbol, if it appears on your dishwasher, will usually indicate a 'normal' wash program.
Such programs are suitable for regular soiling and everyday use with a moderate temperature range.
Lightly soiled items.
Lightly soiled items (5296)
This denotes a low intensity, low temperature program suitable for glassware or lightly soiled items.
There may be some crossover between this program and 'eco' programs, as eco programs use lower temperatures for washing in order to minimise energy consumption.
Delicate items (5297)
This symbol indicates stemware or other delicate items.
You may see this symbol on glass racks and brackets designed to hold delicate wine glasses so they can be washed without damaging them, or it may indicate a delicate/glassware wash program.
Pre-wash, dishwashers (5300)
This refers to a pre-wash program, or potentially for the pre-wash component of a longer wash cycle.
You may also see this symbol on a separate detergent dispenser for dishwashers equipped with a pre-wash program, so you can keep the bulk of your powder dry for the main wash program, though we haven't seen such a dishwasher in the CHOICE labs for some time now.
Main wash dishwashers.
Main wash, dishwashers (5640)
This symbol is for a dishwasher's main wash program, as opposed to a partial or pre-wash.
While manufacturers can and do use proprietary symbols (or in many cases just words) to denote wash programs, you may see this symbol in conjunction with a temperature.
You may also see this symbol on crockery or items that go into a dishwasher, in which case it means the item in question is 'dishwasher proof'. A little more formal than a dishwasher safe symbol, this icon indicates the minimum number of dishwasher cycles the item in question is certified to withstand under the European norm EN 12875.
You'll probably only see this symbol on premium or professional quality items, and the higher the number, the more robust the item.
Dishwasher tap icon.
A tap symbol is usually a warning your dishwasher isn't getting enough water, and you need to check to make sure the water inlet hose isn't blocked and the tap is turned on.
If that's not the cause of the issue then there may be a more serious problem deeper within the machine.
Three vertical wavy lines generally relate to drying.
You'll see this symbol either on the dishwasher's display to indicate it's in the drying part of its cycle, or on the controls for extra drying options.
A lock or key icon generally refers to a child lock.
Child locks prevent your dishwasher from being opened or operated by tiny hands, and can either lock the control panel, where you'll typically have to press and hold a combination of buttons to be able to operate the machine, or prevent the door from being opened.
Connected or Wi-Fi.
Connected, smart or Wi-Fi icons
Modern appliances are increasingly coming with Wi-Fi connectivity, offering remote monitoring, firmware updates, or troubleshooting and diagnostics.
The symbols for such connectivity are many and varied, but will typically include concentric waves familiar to any Wi-Fi users, and may include a rectangle to represent the smartphone you'll use to monitor the appliance.
If there's a program and setting you keep coming back to then many modern appliances, dishwashers included, allow you to save it as a favourite so you can select it with a single touch.
Typically the symbol for this is a star, because it's your star performer. Geddit?
Time delay, time remaining or program length.
A symbol of a clock generally refers to a time delay function, which is a handy option that lets you set your dishwasher to run at a specific time, like overnight using off-peak electricity, or in the middle of the day when your solar power generation is at its highest.
A clock with a number in it may also indicate a time-based program (e.g. '1h' would be a one-hour program).
A wine glass icon generally indicates a program specifically designed for delicate glassware. It may or may not include a temperature.
Your dishwasher more than likely comes with an eco mode, denoted by a stylised leaf, or just the word 'eco'. Eco modes typically use lower wash temperatures to reduce the amount of energy used to wash your dishes. But manufacturers aren't necessarily doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.
These programs are often used for the registration process, where they're designed to use the barest minimum energy and water possible to pass the thresholds required for registration – which results in the highest possible energy and water star ratings. 'Registration program' doesn't sound as appealing as an eco mode though, so that's what manufacturers will typically call it.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.