When Moths Make a Home In Yours

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MOTHS that thrive on wardrobes full of cashmere, wool, fur and other fabrics made from animal hair are a bane to many people. But there are plenty of ways to protect your clothes without resorting to mothballs.

Cleanliness is the first -- and best -- line of defense, said Cheryl Ann Farr, a professor of textiles and clothing at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla., because dirty clothes are often what attract moths in the first place. Moth eggs, larvae and adult moths can all be killed by a hot-water wash cycle or by dry cleaning. And any that remain in the closet can be vacuumed up or removed by scrubbing.

"I have a closet that's the size of a small room," Professor Farr said. "It's kind of embarrassing. And I'm vigilant about vacuuming and cleaning it. Twice a year, I clean it out and check for any types of pests."

She became particularly cautious after a run-in with moths a few years ago. The epicenter of her battle was an expensive wool suit from Harvé Benard that had "little holes all over it," she said. "You should've seen the dry cleaning bill" for the rest of the clothes in the closet, she added, admitting that she spent more than $400 to have her wool and cashmere clothing professionally cleaned.

Jeffrey Miller, a professor of insect ecology at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore., has studied moths since 1973 and has developed an analytical approach to dealing with infestation.

"First, I would identify why I have this problem: did someone give me an article that was infested and I put it in my closet?" Professor Miller said, referring to the most-common way moths get into closets -- through a single infested item. (If you just bought a vintage sweater at a second-hand shop, wash it before putting it away.) "Or have all my drawers and shelves probably had them for a while?"

Next, he said, he would dry clean anything made of wool or animal fibers. Generally, moths will ignore cotton and synthetic materials, but even so, he said: "I'd wash everything else in 120-degree hot water. Just because moths don't eat cotton doesn't mean that a caterpillar wouldn't wander over to a pure cotton shirt and pupate there."

After that, he said, he would vacuum the floor, the bottoms and tops of the shelves, and even the ceiling, making sure not to miss the corners, to remove any remaining eggs and larvae, which are the real culprits.

In fact, it's a common misconception that adult moths eat fabric. It is their larvae, half-inch caterpillars that spend their roughly 10-day-long life cycle fattening up on the contents of your closet, that leave those telltale holes.

And those holes are often the first sign of an infestation. Adult moths are a mere quarter-inch wide and a camouflage-friendly beige-brown, which makes them hard to see.

If you do spot moths in your home, don't panic. Chances are they aren't the clothes-eating kind. "There are 15,000 moth species in the U.S.," said Bruce Walsh, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona at Tucson. "To give you a sense of perspective, only two affect clothes. So if you see one, odds are you don't have a clothes moths."

To find out, try a pheromone-moth trap, like the Pro-Pest Clothes Moth Traps (about $14 on Amazon.com), sticky strips that emit mating pheromones, luring the male clothing moths. "It's an excellent monitoring tool, especially if you don't know how to inspect every cranny looking for a caterpillar," Professor Miller said.

Whether you have clothes-eating moths or not, though, storing clothing safely -- preferably in dry, airtight containers or clothing bags -- is essential. "Airtight just means moths can't get in," Professor Miller said. "If adult moths can't get in, they can't lay eggs."

Any plastic sweater box with a tight-fitting lid (the Container Store sells them for about $5) will do the trick. For extra protection, seal the edges with packing tape. Vacuum-sealed garment bags work, too (the Stow More Garment and Travel Bags by Bongo are about $10 for a set of three on Amazon.com), and individual items can be safely stored in Ziploc bags.

Cedar balls or cedar-lined chests are another option, although they're not always effective. What "most people don't realize is that the fumes from cedar are toxic to moths only when in very high concentrations," Professor Farr said. "So people think, 'O. K., I can throw a couple cedar balls into each sweater bag, and I'm good.' Probably not." Also, the cedar fumes will dissipate, which means you will need to add new balls, replace the cedar or sand it to revive its potency.

There are other natural anti-moth repellents on the market, like dried lavender, but "there's little scientific evidence" of their efficacy, Professor Farr said.

If you are determined to go the natural route, try storing that treasured wool scarf in the freezer. "It's bulletproof," Professor Walsh said. "The best thing you can do is put it in a plastic bag and freeze it" for two weeks.

Those who go with the traditional mothball option should be aware that "you're storing your clothes with a pesticide," often naphthalene, said Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist at Consumers Union, a consumer advocacy group in Yonkers, N.Y. "Yes, the pesticide can kill the moths, but when you take a look at these ingredients, they're classified as possible carcinogens, and show negative health effects from inhalation."

If you decide to use mothballs, wear gloves and follow the instructions on the label. "I know a lot of people that just take mothballs and pour them into a chest or just open the box and leave it there," Professor Miller said. "This is not good. Those fumes are toxic. If you want to use them, put them in airtight bags with clothes."

Airtight containers are, in fact, the only way to make sure the fume concentrations are high enough to be effective. "Mothball fumes are only effective in a sealed container," said David Stone, director of the National Pesticide Information Center, who has a Ph.D. in toxicology. "Putting them throughout a closet won't kill moths, and will cause headaches for the homeowner, literally."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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