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How Do You Deter Moths (Without Using Smelly Mothballs)?

Photo: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Sweater season is officially upon us, but with the coziness comes a pesky concern: do you have moths? Are they laying eggs on your cashmere sweater right this minute, promising to chew tiny but irreparable holes into your clothing?

Maybe, but before we get into what to do about it — because there are things to do that don’t include odorous mothballs — it helps to know what moths are doing in your closet in the first place. “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 of moths eat textiles, but the latter does something called grazing, chewing at a top layer of fabric without leaving a hole. They also are both more of a nuisance in larval form, rather than in winged form. Wilcox-Levine describes them 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 [in order] to reach that size,” says Corinna Williams, co-founder of the Brooklyn laundromat-slash-coffee shop Celsious. If anything, looking for the cocoons can at least confirm that it’s moths, and not wear-and-tear, causing the holes.

That makes dealing with the problem a matter of prevention and eradication. We asked four experts — Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd, co-founders of laundry products brand The Laundress, Wilcox-Levine, and Williams — about how to deter moths, and how to evict them (and prevent them from reproducing) if they’ve already taken up residence.

How to prevent moths

To prevent a moth infestation, Whiting 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,” Boyd says. For that reason, she and Whiting recommend storing vulnerable clothes in breathable cotton canvas bags with zipper closures, and to avoid plastic or cardboard that could trap moisture and create moth-friendly humid environments.

For longer garments that get stored under the bed or in drawers.

The Launderess also makes its own line of canvas storage bags, including this hanging bag for dresses, coats, or other garments you’d prefer to access quickly.

Whiting advises against using mothballs, which she 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, which is why we’re talking about lavender (and not rosemary).

Whiting especially likes these fancy linen-encased lavender products from San Francisco brand ElizabethW.

This 12-pack of lavender sachets is another (economical) option.

Pouches will work for drawers, too, but there’s also the option of a lavender drawer liner.

Lavender oil is a good idea for scaring off clothes moths, too. Williams suggests hand-washing “vulnerable garments” with a few drops of natural essential lavender oil at the end of the season. The oil can also re-scent pouches that have faded over time.

Or, Williams says to treat post-laundry clothes with a spritz of lavender linen water.

How to get rid of moths

If you suspect that moths have already gotten into your wardrobe and laid their eggs, there’s still time to evict them and spare any uneaten sweaters. Williams suggests first washing garments either by hand or on a wool setting in the washing machine using detergent formulated for protein-based fibers, in order to remove the larvae.

“If you want to add an extra layer of security, place one pheromone trap in your closet to attra