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How to Prevent and Get Rid of Moths (Without Using Smelly Mothballs)?

Photo: Nickelodeon

If you’ve ever found tiny holes in your favorite wool and cashmere sweaters, you probably asked yourself two questions. The first, for us at least, is, Can I still get away with wearing this? But then comes the bigger question: What do I do to get rid of the moths that caused them? “There are two different types of moths that damage textiles: webbing and case-bearing clothes moths,” says Meredith Wilcox-Levine, a professional textile conservator at Textile Conservation Workshop. Both kinds eat your clothes, but the latter does something called grazing, chewing at a top layer of fabric without leaving a hole. Wilcox-Levine describes the little sweater ruiners as “tiny, nearly transparent caterpillars,” explaining that they eat protein to prepare for metamorphosis. Unfortunately, “at the point where larvae are large enough to be easily noticeable, they will already have eaten away at your favorite items.” says Corinna Williams, co-founder of the Brooklyn laundromat-slash-coffee shop Celsious. And if you’re seeing fully winged adults, it’s definitely too late. Because moths don’t like movement, Benett Pearlman, founder and CEO of Positive Pest Management, says this past year was huge for moth infestations, as people abandoned whole work wardrobes for the same two pairs of sweatpants. “We are getting the worst pandemic of moths that we’ve ever had in Manhattan because of the coronavirus,” he says.

So even if you haven’t seen any holes just yet, you’d be smart to invest a little time in prevention as you pack up your sweaters for the summer. We asked Pearlman, Wilcox-Levine, Williams, and three other experts for the best ways to prevent moths, along with how to get rid of them (and prevent them from reproducing) if they’ve already taken up residence.

How to prevent moths

To prevent a moth infestation, Gwen Whiting, co-founder of The Laundress, says you should first learn what they like to eat, and what they can’t eat. “Moth larvae typically target clothes made from animal fibers such as silk, wool, cashmere, angora, or fur, and materials that contain keratin, the fibrous structural proteins found in our skin and hair,” she says. There’s one useful exception: “Moths cannot eat through cotton,” says Lindsey Boyd, The Laundress’s other co-founder. But, according to Pearlman, that doesn’t stop them from trying. “Moths are not endowed with the ability to detect whether a piece of clothing is wool or not until they start to chew into it. But the minute they taste that it’s not wool, they do an about-face.” So while they won’t chew through your cotton or synthetic clothing, they could still do damage trying. For that reason, in addition to your cashmere sweaters, Pearlman suggests storing any valuable clothing in completely sealed storage bags to prevent moth larvae from entering.

Boyd and Whiting recommend thick but breathable cotton canvas storage bags with zipper closures and advise against anything made of plastic or cardboard, which could trap moisture and create humid moth-friendly environments. Similarly, Hannah Yokoji, brand director at The Laundress, says you should also avoid storing clothing in humid or damp places like attics or basements as they “are optimal environments for moth breeding.” This zip-up box is a convenient shape for storing sweaters.

This one is well-suited for longer garments that get stored under the bed or in drawers.

For things you’d rather store hanging up, like dresses, suits, and coats, try this 100 percent cotton garment bag that zips all the way closed. It’s also nice for anything you’d prefer to access quickly.

If you already have garment bags you like, but they have a little gap at the top near the hanger, Pearlman recommends sealing them up with duct tape. “Just duct tape that hole to the point where nothing could squeeze through around the hanger,” he says.

Whiting, Pearlman, and Yokoji advise against using mothballs, which Whiting says are “are toxic and leave permanent, noxious odors.” (Plus, we all know they smell awful.) She also warns against cedar wood blocks or chips, which can leave stubborn oil stains on fabrics or cause acidification damage. Instead, she recommends lavender pouches that can attach to hangers or get tossed into drawers. “Lavender has been used for centuries for its bug-repelling properties,” she says. “It has terpene compounds that are said to help keep moths away,” she says. As for what terpene compounds are: the linalool, linalyl acetate, cineole, and camphor in lavender are what’s thought to help repel moths, as well as other pesky insects like mosquitoes. The latter two compounds are thought to have insecticidal properties. Those are also found in rosemary, but at lower levels than in lavender.