The first step to getting rid of bedbugs is making sure you actually have bedbugs. “I would say at least 50 percent of the samples sent to us turn out not to be bedbugs,” says Gil Bloom, the president of Standard Pest Management. But that doesn’t mean those tiny, flat bugs aren’t out there, waiting to hop onto your jacket or your roommate’s backpack and infest your mattress. “It’s unfortunately a fact of life in the city,” admits Bloom, an entomologist with more than 40 years of experience, including a stint as an appointed member of Mayor Bloomberg’s Bed Bug Advisory Board. And the ubiquity of bedbugs is exactly why it’s important to stay calm. “Yes, it’s very rough, but by dealing with it with fact and not fear, people get over it and move on.”
So, no, you’re not going to get sick from bedbugs, and you will probably be able to get rid of bedbugs without throwing out all of your belongings. But knowing what you need to prevent bedbugs and how bedbug treatment works will probably help you feel a little bit calmer. To find out exactly what you need to know about preventing, treating, and getting rid of bedbugs, we spoke with Bloom and four other experts, including pest-control professionals and another entomologist. Below, they recommend the best ways to kill bedbugs and the products you can buy to help stop them from infesting your apartment in the first place — or, at the very least, to catch them early enough so they don’t become a bigger problem.
Best products for preventing bedbugs
“Be careful with what you bring into your home,” counsels Andy Linares, the founder of New York City–based Bug Off Pest Control Center. “Be very suspicious of furniture from second-hand shops or garage sales.” Vintage or not, to be on the safe side, Linares says that anyone concerned about stopping unwanted hitchhikers from invading their home should treat furniture brought into it with a bedbug-stopping spray. He likes Bedlam’s aerosol insecticide spray, which can be applied to all the cracks and crevices in your new furniture and will kill bedbugs on contact.
“With bedbugs, and any pests, you want to isolate your apartment from the other units as much as possible” to prevent infestations from spreading through the building, explains Bloom. The best way to do that is by going along the edges of your apartment and filling in any gaps and cracks in the walls — like, say, around where a radiator pipe might protrude from. Filling these sorts of gaps is especially important in bedbug-prone areas like bedrooms, according to Bloom, who says the best way to close them up is with some type of sealant. When it comes to sealants, he says to avoid regular caulk because it dries up and cracks, which doesn’t keep anything out. Instead, Bloom suggests this polyurethane-based foam sealant, which comes with an easy-to-use applicator to reach tight spaces.
Timothy Wong, the technical director of New York City–based, ecofriendly pest management company MMPC, prefers this sealant from Dap. Unlike silicone or foam, it is completely clear, not shiny, and paintable, but still water-resistant. Wong adds that sealing cracks doesn’t just prevent bedbugs from entering your apartment, but also eliminates places where they can hide and seek safe harbor.
For even more protection, before applying a sealant, Bloom says you could also apply silica gel to gaps and cracks. “Silica gel is a desiccant,” or a drying dust that also works as an insecticide, he explains. Like sealants, Blooms says to apply this in areas where bedbugs are likely to emerge from, such as crevices at the base of closets and along bedroom moldings. Linares adds you can even remove your electrical outlet covers and dust CimeXa inside the wall behind them. After applying this, if any bedbugs visit through those areas, Bloom says the odds are good that they’ll cross the silica gel, which will dry them out and kill them.
A common misconception is that bedbugs hide and breed in your mattress. Turns out, box springs are actually the “No. 1 harborage site,” according to Bloom, because their raw wood and padding provide the perfect conditions for the bugs to live and breed. According to our experts, investing in an exterminator-approved box spring encasement will make it harder for them to multiply. John H. Brickman, the owner of NYC Bed Bug Inspections, likes Linenspa’s polyester box-spring cover, which protects against dust mites, allergens, and liquids as well as bedbugs.
Once you have your box spring covered (literally), adding another level of protection by covering your mattress is always a good bet because having both a mattress and a box spring covered will go even further toward keeping an infestation at bay. Plus, a mattress cover also provides a clean, white surface, so if bedbugs do show up, “they’re more easily detected and found,” explains Bloom. This one from SafeRest — which zips closed and is made from durable polyester coated in a water- and “bedbug-proof” layer — took the top spot in our best bedbug mattress covers roundup. Wong always recommends SafeRest’s mattress covers to his clients, due to their breathable material, washability, and well-designed zipper guard, which prevents bedbugs from crawling through the zipper’s teeth. This one also has a zipper cover that prevents bedbugs from entering into the zipper’s seams. The covers are also completely waterproof, hypoallergenic, and machine-washable, he adds.
Since bedbugs tend to hide in dark areas, they can be tough to see, which is why Bloom suggests adding an adjustable LED flashlight to your arsenal. He loves the SureFire Sidekick because “it has three settings, fits in your pocket, is USB-charging, and gives you as little or as much power as you need.”
If bedbugs manage to breach your defenses, passive monitor traps are an inexpensive way to detect them early. Bloom promises that boards like this “do not attract bedbugs at all,” but will often trap any that are already in your room, alerting you to a problem before it gets completely out of control. He likes these ones from Catchmaster because they contain less glue than similar traps on the market (high-glue content traps, while good at catching other insects, are actually somewhat repellant to bedbugs). Bloom says to “place them in innocuous areas like the base of closets, behind the bed or night tables, and areas around radiators” so they stay out of sight. “You don’t want to go into your bedroom and be surrounded by traps,” he adds.
Best products for getting rid of bedbugs
According to Bloom, “If you do have bedbugs and you’re in a rental unit, the landlord is responsible for the service,” so you’d want to contact yours and about the issue immediately. The next most important thing to do is follow the pest-control contractors’ instructions and prep for their visit. Any infested areas should be thoroughly vacuumed before an exterminator arrives, Bloom says, because bedbugs could otherwise find shelter in lingering dust and debris. He says the best vacuums for treating bedbug-riddled spaces should have two features. The first is a HEPA filter, so that when you vacuum, you’re not blowing allergens around the house. The second is a crack-and-crevice nozzle, so you can get to hard-to-reach places where bedbugs may be hiding. This inexpensive vacuum cleaner fulfills both requirements.
While vacuuming and preparing for pest-control professionals to arrive, Linares has one important piece of advice: Do not move any items from an infested room into another room or space in your house. In doing so, “you can move bugs to areas they wouldn’t normally be,” he warns. And if you decide to purge anything from an infested space, he suggests wrapping every item in garbage bags and duct tape before putting it on a curb, so you do not spread bedbugs through your building’s hallways and elevators. “It may sound gruesome, but you should write ‘BEDBUGS’ — in capital letters — on any items you put on the curb,” Linares adds.
Once you have bedbugs, you’ll need to wash and dry any clothing or bedding that you don’t want to part with. But you want to be sure to wash and dry clothes on a high heat setting, since heat is what will actually kill the bedbugs, not the water itself. Wong adds that, “for removing clothing for laundry, we recommend people use water-soluble bags.” This way, all of your infested things can be sealed off in the bag (which dissolves in the washing machine), minimizing the risk of contaminating your non-infected stuff — or other people’s. As Wong notes, bags like this are “especially important for people using public washers and dryers,” whether at a laundromat or in an apartment building.
Should any bedbugs or their eggs make it onto items you can’t run through the washer and dryer, a garment steamer would be a great way to kill them, Wong says. Adult bedbugs and their eggs will die when they come in contact with something that is 120 degrees Fahrenheit and higher, he explains, and steam is only produced when water temperature reaches 212 Fahrenheit (making it an effective alternative to dry cleaning). If you choose to use a steamer, Bloom says to make sure you treat items over a tub, so if any bugs fall, they’re contained. While Wong says you can find a variety of inexpensive steamers that all work about the same, this Strategist-approved steamer comes recommended by contributor Shannon Adducci. “Unlike wimpy versions that puff more than steam,” she writes that the handheld “X-Cel sports a wide stainless steel head that blasts powerful bursts of hot mist,” which will likely kill bugs on contact.
For yet another way to kill bedbugs and their eggs on contact, Wong suggests 91 percent isopropyl alcohol, which he says is cheaper than most insecticides. “We recommend our clients use this when treating or cleaning items that might be contaminated with bedbugs,” he told us, cautioning that you would not use this on clothing or bedding, but rather on floors or other surfaces that have been contaminated. To ensure you are only applying it where it needs to go, Wong also recommends getting an easy-to-use spray bottle, which he says will also make cleaning a little less backbreaking.
On small items that can’t be washed or dried, you can even use a hairdryer to kill bedbugs, Bloom says. But for larger belongings, like luggage or certain pieces of furniture, he recommends a heat tent, like the ZappBug Oven, which he calls very “effective.” The ZappBug Oven can also be used for books, files, or paperwork that obviously will not survive a trip through the washer (or a hit with a steamer). The tent will heat up to somewhere between 120–155 Fahrenheit, has a digital thermometer to ensure it reaches the desired temperature, and will automatically turn off once the cycle has been completed. Since it is powered by electricity, Bloom does advise that people make sure they have strong wiring in their apartments, so the heat tent “doesn’t keep tripping circuit breakers or fuses.”