Custom Packaging

The Complete Guide to International Packing Symbols

Everything you need to know on packaging symbols, shipping symbols and how to use them for your boxes and shipping cartons.

Mohana MadhurakaviTweet
The Complete Guide to International Packing Symbols

Ever find yourself staring at your packaging and wondering what all those symbols mean? Whether it’s your end customer who has received the packaging or it’s you who received the packaging from your supplier, there’s always use of one or more signs on the box.

These signs are usually recognized internationally and provide more information about the product inside in an easy and comprehensible way. While using most of these symbols on your boxes is completely voluntary, it is advised to use ones that alert receivers or transporters about possible dangers during transit.

Though some symbols are self-explanatory, we have created a guide to help you recognize each symbol, understand it’s meaning, and also put it to use when required.

Note: you can download all of the following icons in AI format here.

Handling and care symbols

This side up

This symbol, consisting of two arrows pointing towards the top, directs in which way the box is to be placed to ensure it is upright. If the packaging holds this symbol, it means that the contents must never be carried sideways or upside-down as they might break. It’s also a good indication of which side to open the box from.

Fragile

You might find the word “fragile” printed onto some boxes which makes it fairly self-explanatory. The items inside the box are prone to damage and thus, need to be managed carefully. Sometimes, you will find a cracked wine glass printed on the box instead of the word. This also represents fragility. In most cases, this might mean there is glass or glass-like components in the box.

Handle with care

If you see hands cupping a box, then this symbol represents ‘handle with care’. This means that the box contains a lot of intricate parts or parts that can get damaged when mishandled. Unlike the fragile sign, the handle with care sign signifies that the box must not be stacked and should be loaded and carried around with lots of care.

Keep Dry

The umbrella signifies the need to keep the box in a dry environment and never leave it in the rain. This symbol also tells you that the items inside the box are not waterproof.

Temperature-sensitive

Temperature-sensitive is depicted with the logo of a thermometer and the degree in which it should be stored. Even if the general rule of thumb is to keep it away from direct sunlight and the rain, some products (e.g. pharmaceuticals) might need to be stored in closer ranges of temperature.

Protect from direct sunlight

The ‘protect from direct sunlight’ sign shows a box under sunlight with a line across it. This could mean that the contents inside the box can be damaged when placed under the sun (e.g. food) or that they are flammable and can burn (see the next symbol). This symbol is similar to temperature-sensitive but less specific as to what temperature to store it in.

Flammable materials

The fire symbol represents flammable materials. This means that the items inside the box and the box itself can burn and cause damage when left near an open fire, smoke, hot surfaces, or sparks. This holds true for items containing chemicals or anything made of paper.

Maximum stacking height

If you see two parallel horizontal bars with a number on top, it signifies the stack height. This would depend on the contents inside the box and the thickness and strength of the box itself. Make sure to check the number of the symbol (it isn’t always the same). If you see the number 4, then it means that only 4 or fewer boxes of a similar kind can be stacked on top of one another. Any more than 4 and you’re at the risk of damaging the boxes at the bottom.

Do not stack

In some cases, you will see two horizontal bars with a red line across. This means that the boxes cannot be stacked. These boxes are too fragile or contain items that can damage easily with pressure.

Do not hook

This sign is represented by a hook with an X marked on it. It means that the boxes are too heavy to be hooked onto something or to be carried using a hook. Doing so might cause the boxes to open from below.

Do not lift

A person trying to lift the box with a prohibition sign on it is the symbol telling you that the box may be too heavy to lift alone. You might need a trolley or the help of a second person. Watch out for either of these symbols as shown below.

Two-person lifting

If you see two people lifting the box in the symbol, it means that the box can be lifted with the help of another person or a few more people.

Trolley lifting

If the sign shows a trolley with boxes on it, it would mean that you would need to use a trolley to lift the box. It is advised not to ignore this symbol since it could mean that the boxes not only need to be lifted properly but also placed back on the ground smoothly.

Sustainable symbols

Recycle sign

This is one of the most commonly recognized signs on any box. The recycle symbols signifies that a part of the box has been recycled before, made from recycled materials, or that the entire box can be recycled after use. This symbol is a representation of sustainable practices on the part of the shipper.

FSC sign

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification ensures suppliers and businesses are seeking, buying, and using materials that come from well-managed forests and recycled sources. The sign is to say that the materials of the box are FSC approved.

It is important to note that not everyone can use the FSC label. Due to the Chain-of-Custody certification process, every business that wants to produce or outsource an FSC-certified product or package must also be FSC. Read more about the chain of custody here.

Plastic recycling

Plastic recycling signs depend on what type of plastic was recycled. It is represented with the recycle symbol and a number in the middle. The number should tell you the type of plastic that was recycled and used.

1 - PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate). This type of plastic is used to make water bottles and other single-use items.  

2 - HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene). This plastic is found in slightly more sturdy plastic items such as shampoo bottles and tubs.

3 -  PVC (Vinyl or Polyvinyl Chloride). You have probably heard of PVC pipes, this plastic is tough and good to be used in any weather and thus is used for piping and siding.

4 - LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene). This is a more flexible plastic found in shopping bags.

5 - PP (Polypropylene). This type of plastic has a high melting point and thus can sustain hot liquids or solids. It is used in some cups and straws.

6 - PS (Polystyrene). Styrofoam is essentially made of this type of plastic. It is more rigid than other types.

7 - Any other type of plastic or resins that don’t fall under the above categories are classified as ‘other’.

Tidy man

The sign of a man disposing of waste in a trashcan signifies the general act of being responsible when it comes to discarding your boxes or the items inside (e.g: tissue paper, bubble wrap, etc).

The above list of shipping symbols is not exhaustive. You may find that there are symbols that are country-specific and even specific to the type of packaging and the use (e.g. food packaging).

Want to use these symbols on your packaging? Download the Adobe Illustrator file here!