Thursday, April 02, 2009

That Time I Wrote About Mothballs

Six weeks ago, I could not have told you what mothballs smelled like. To the best of my knowledge, no one in my family ever used them. I have no recollections of time spent in basements or attics or around old people or old clothing that trigger that mothball-y smell. I've never had occasion to buy them, and have heard enough about their toxicity to never want to.

I don't know how or why, but in the last couple months of our living in SF, we developed quite a moth problem. Perhaps someone who knows anything about "nature" can explain this to me, because I equate moths with attics and basements and porch-light fixtures in evenings in the country in summer. I do not associate moths with concrete urban lofts whose only other mid-winter pests are the drug dealers showing up for our neighbor's raves.

Regardless of why or how we developed the problem, Ish declared that he would do everything in his power to ensure that we did not bring the moths with us to Napa. I supported him in his quest.

He determined that the simplest, most effective course of action would be to throw a few mothballs into any -- and every -- box we packed that contained items of fabric. Clothes boxes, boxes with purses, boxes with blankets or towels or scarves or, well, you get the idea.

Seemed reasonable to me, as long as I wasn't the one actually touching them.

So that's what we did.

I mean, the four seconds I spent thinking about this told me it'd be fine. I figured we'd move into the house, get our washer and dryer set up, and then I'd just open each box of clothes, wash the clothes, and put them away. Tra la frickin' la.

Are you laughing at us yet?

Yes, well.

Here's what happened.

It took us a few days of living here before the washer and dryer were delivered. It took another few days for us to unearth the boxes of clothes and move them toward the laundry room. Needless to say, after a WEEK of living in the same basic sweats, I was more than ready to do laundry. I was positively giddy with excitement.

I opened the first clothes box, I put a reeking load in the washer, I waited for this glorious new machine (which, by the way, was operating without quarters!) to do its magic work.

The wash cycle ended, I opened the washer lid, and BAM! I was smacked in the face with mothball stench.

Huh? I thought. That's odd. Maybe it's the hypo-allergenic detergent? Maybe it just needs two wash cycles? Maybe a pre-soak? I hope it's not the washing machine! I'm going to try this again...

And so I put the load through the wash again, with complete optimism. I assumed the first wash was just a fluke. The washing machine's maiden voyage wasn't meant to do such heavy work or something. I had every belief that the second washing would do it. I was completely surprised when I opened the lid at the end of the cycle and discovered the smell was just as strong as when I opened the box.

I had a sinking feeling. I didn't even want to check the internet. Looking up what might be wrong with mothball-smelling clothes engendered the same kind of fear I'd have looking up horrible medical symptoms on WebMD. The results couldn't be good. What is the laundry equivalent of "cancer"?

But I had no other choice.

Mothballs are the hardest smell to remove from clothing.

Washing clothes that have been stored with mothballs will not remove the smell.

The smell will not go away on its own. Simply taking the clothing out of their containers will do nothing.

This was not the kind of information I wanted to read. I started to slowly, dramatically realize that every article of clothing that Ish and I owned was drenched in non-removable stench. Even if a vinegar soak could remove SOME of the scent (as had been suggested by more than a few websites) surely I couldn't soak every last hat and glove in vinegar. Could I? I'd need bathtubs full!

You can well imagine that I, sick and pregnant and dirty and exhausted AND faced with the overwhelming circumstances of having mounds of unpacking yet to do could NOT also handle the idea that I might never regain any of my clothing from the dark hole of poisonous pesticide vapors.

I completely lost it. Oh, it was ugly. I indulged in the ugly, ugly cry. The phlegmy, eye-bulging, hysterical sobbing, moaning, wailing cry that signaled perhaps I needed a break from the whole "moving" thing.

I needed to do something happy and ridiculous. So, for reasons I don't entirely understand (perhaps my cravings were arguing with my subconscious: You want SUBURBS? I'll give you SUBURBS!), I announced to Ish that he was taking Applebee's.

Perhaps it was the plastic menu, perhaps it was the food items with made-up names, but something about being around so many creatively fried things -- served with a non-diet Coca-Cola no less -- was surprisingly restorative.

When we returned home, I got back online and searched for more viable mothball smell-ridding solutions than vinegar baths. I read several comments from people who explained (in grammatically challenged internet-commenter-ese) that the mothball smell is actually gas and that direct sunlight is the best and easiest way to get the smell out, because it's also a gas.

Hmm. While I am always dubious of internet commenter "science," lots of people seemed to swear by the clothes-outside-in-the-sun theory. And "sunlight" came across as a little more manageable and far more appealing than having my underpants go from smelling like moth balls to smelling like faint moth balls plus Easter egg dye.

So by Sunday afternoon, when the sun had reared its head, this is what our yard looked like:

I like to call this photo, "Welcome To The Neighborhood." I'm sure our next-door neighbor thought we were completely out of our heads. And oh-so-classy!

But this is just a taste of it. The first hurrah, if you will, where Ish and I painstakingly brought every article of clothing and clothing-related things out onto our patio and lawn and outdoor furniture in heaps. Only to have to bring them in again in the evening.

Which meant that by Sunday night, we'd discovered two things. Direct sunlight? Totally works. Simply being outside? Does not. In fact, the contrast was stark. The t-shirt warm from the sun was odor-free, where the t-shirt directly below that, partially covered in shadow still positively reeked.

Thus, for the next FIVE days, every morning I had to take as many items of clothing outside as would fit -- in a single layer -- to get enough air and sunlight as possible. We fashioned a makeshift clothesline across the whole yard, and I'd stick whatever else I could fit on the fence, chairs, and patio stone. Every sock, every pillowcase, every washcloth, every fleece running vest needed its own 4-8 hours of sunlight to smell fresh again.

I guess the good news is that, in the end, it worked. Also, I now know how to get the smell of mothballs out of ANYTHING. (And in theory, so do you.)

But it was still a daunting and superbly un-fun way to spend the second full week of living here. It's all better now, but I definitely suffered my first suburban setback.

Applebee's and all.

Update: Thanks for asking, Rob-bear. We seem to have conquered the moth issue. At least, so far, so good. So hopefully this whole exercise was worth it. (Let's hope so.)


  1. Hilarious! I'm really glad to hear that you were able to figure out a solution!

    Too bad a meltdown was involved, but you gotta love the fried cheese sticks at Applebee's!

  2. The unanswered question: Did any of the moths make it to Napa?

  3. OMFG! I was laughing so hard reading this I had to re-read to the fam! I'm glad it all worked out.

  4. Oh holy crap. That photo? Made my day.

    So very funny!

    (Ummmm, also? Thanks for the tips! I hope I never need them.)

  5. I am in awe that you had to do all of that. Just thinking about it has exhausted me!!! Kudos to you.

  6. OMG! I can just imagine your neighbors! Is there anything you do that isn't totally embarrassing?

  7. That's so horribly awesome! I was cracking up, and thankful it wasn't me. Hang in there, moving blows for a while.

  8. How do you smell mothballs?

    You first must hold them by their little wings......

  9. Ha ha!
    We had a moth problem too & among other remedies we resorted to mothballs. This was over a year ago & I typically feel confident we are mothball smell free.
    Last week I was at a high school checking in at the front desk & one of the students behind me started talking about how it smelled like moth balls but she didn't see any old ladies around...
    I wanted to crawl under the desk.

  10. I love this story in a disproportionate way. I just do. Great picture, tells it all.

  11. Wow, i had no idea that you couldn't just wash it out. That's awful. When i was a kid, we had a problem with moths and it was horrible. It took months to finally get rid of them. But we figured out that they came into the house (in egg form) in a bag of nuts from the grocery store. Ew.
    Thank goodness you figured out how to get rid of the smell.

  12. wow, I'm sorry but that was hilarious. I'm glad there was a happy ending where the smell went away.

  13. As much as I feel your pain over the mothball disaster (worst smell ever), I can't thank you enough for this post. I've had a baad day and reading this and seeing the picture just took me from watery-eyed mess to fits of giggles.

    I'm glad you've got rid of the smell! And I now know what to do if I ever encounter the problem.

    Thanks again,

  14. Thanks for sharing your woes. That picture and the whole account is too funny. According to some lady who was on a Washington Post chat this week, dried lavender works as well as mothballs.

  15. What must your neighbors think?

    Awesome that it worked, however!

  16. Oh. My. God.

    If this was a movie, you would total still have moths. ;)

  17. Who cares what the neighbors think? What's important is that that awful smell is gone.


    You have some keen stick-to-it-iveness, for sure.

  18. Have you ever seen mothballs? How'd you get their tiny little legs apart?


    Glad you got it sorted out Kristy -- that was hysterical.

  19. Dude, I hate to say this, because it's the worst thing you can ever say to a knitter: have you checked your yarn??

  20. Man o man, I am glad to hear that you discovered a solution...even one as convoluted as that. Mothball smell is the worst!

    And your yard? Even with the clothes strewn's lovely.

  21. With all that mothball smell you will not have any black widows.
    Look for the silver lining;)

  22. Mothball odor reminds me of my grandfather.

    Which leads me to the next fact: We had cedar closets, cedar blocks placed between all of our folded clothing, etc. I was always taught that cedar repels moths. Since cedar smells wonderful (to an extent), I continued the practice now.

    Now that the clothes are unsmelled, maybe go buy some cedar planks, have someone cut them into pieces for you, sand them so there are no splinters, and put a ton of those in your drawers.

    Cedar (or lavendar) is better than mothballs any day.

    Or get some cedar planks and grill some salmon. Hmm. (Can you tell I live in the NW yet?!?)

    I'm hungry! :)

  23. You know, when you mentioned your crazy laundry problem, I just assumed you were exaggerating. I I thought maybe you'd let your laundry pile up and now you had to do ten loads, and were feeling all pregnantly overwhelmed. But no-- this qualifies as a "serious laundry issue", all right. Did you consider just throwing everything out and going naked until your internet shopping order arrived?

  24. One summer my father, in his wisdom, decided that mothballs were a cheap and eco-friendly way to keep bugs off of his tomatoes. He sprinkled his tomato patch liberally with moth balls.

    The tomatoes that came out of that tomato patch were ugly, weird, smelly mothball-tomato monstrosities.

    That didn't keep Dad from pushing them visitors by the bushel.

  25. Reading this made me exhausted. Here you are in your new home and oh yeah, you have to take every piece of fabric you own and strategically place them in the sun...ugh what a pain!!

  26. Oh-em-gee, this was totally hysterical in a sort of horrifying way. I'm so glad you didn't resort to soaking all your clothes in vinegar. Wow, what an adventure. I swear, when you become a first-time homeowner, it's some sort of law of nature that you will have to deal with at least three disasters in the first month. At least life in the burbs isn't bland and boring?

  27. Glad to know you have apparently won the moth-er of all battles.

    Yes, I'm leaving now.

  28. I'm not sure what is finding Applebees such a strange place to eat (that's actually the nicest restaurant in my town, LOL) or wondering what the heck your neighbors thought you were doing.

  29. Wow. I didn't think anything could top the time my cat infested the whole apartment with fleas and I had to take every. single. piece of clothing out of the apartment, bag it up on the porch, fumigate and then wash every. single. piece of clothing. But you've totally done it.

  30. I totally expected your last line to read something like: "This morning I found three moths in my closet." LOL

    The irony is that your first suburban setback was caused by your completely urban moth infestation. At least you were spared the drug dealers.

  31. I have to thank you for doing all this legwork. I have a little bag of plagues that I have to de-mothball before passover dinner (you thought your holidays were wacky). I just hope I tie them to my sunny balcony well enough so that they don't rain down upon my neighbors.

  32. Lavendar works too - which it seems some other folks have suggested. The other upside to lavendar / lavender? It grows quickly and easily in this climate - trust me - i can kill anything plantlike and mine thrives. Grow some outside and you'll have plenty to clip every time you need a refresh.

  33. I nearly died laughing. I thought this sort of thing only happened to me!
    And now that I'm struggling with supposed moths (or lying dry cleaners) and feeling reluctant to get the mothballs, this is very timely and helpful info.
    Funny AND useful. Neat.

  34. Thank you for that! This is the first thing that has made me laugh all day since I've taken all my clothes out of storage and found that they all reek of mothballs. I have been close to tears and heartbroken after washing them and finding they still stank. But now I think I may have a chance if I put out all my clothes in the sun for a few days. Thanks again!

  35. I found your blog while searching for was to get mothball smell out of our clothes as well. The clothing part - assuming sun is plentiful - appears to be easy in comparison to getting it out of the actual washer. How did you clear the washer of the smell?

  36. Wow, you certainly made my day. I don't think I laughed this hard in years. Seems as though you had to have this experience to give the rest of us a well needed belly laugh. And for that I would like to say "Thank You" and thank you for sharing your experience. I'm sure we have all learned a valuable lesson regarding mothballs.

  37. Thank you so much for this true, hilarious tale. I bought a cool vintage night gown from Value Village and didn't realize the mothball smell until I got home. After a pre-soak, 2 washings (one with 4 cups of vinegar) and still reeking, my nightie is now outside swinging in the breeze. I hope it works. Thanks again.

  38. You made my day. So funny bless you. My top is blowing on washing line and it is staying there until it smells normal :)

  39. Greetings - I found this post in the usual fashion, and I'm left with this question. How did you get the smell out of your washing machine?

    That's what I'm currently dealing with. I also found the advice that the odor-causing agent is a gas, neutralized by sunlight, I've taken care of the clothes the way you did but the washing machine still reeks. Any tips (recognizing this is years after the fact)?

    1. Hi Matt,

      Wow. I hadn't even thought of that! I guess our machine smelled for a, not sure what got the smell out. Did you try vinegar? We definitely used vinegar at some point. The smell vanished eventually. I'm sorry I'm not more helpful!

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Matt, did anything end up working for you? I'm having the same problem, and I can't find any clear answers on the internet about getting it out of the machine. After washing the washer 3 times my next plan is to open it up with the windows wide (even though it's 20 degrees outside and falling), and let the steam escape out the window. Ugh, what a pain!

      Thanks for any help you might be able to give.

  40. Thanks for your delightful post. I’m so sorry you had to go through this, particularly while pregnant. But it is reassuring to know how well sunshine works. Being chemically sensitive, I've long been aware of the toxic nature of mothballs. They are, in fact, a neurotoxin, and so truly dangerous. Thinking about all the things such as mothballs and DDT that we took so for granted as normal products back in the ‘50s makes me wonder how any of us survived!

    Nevertheless, I am reading this because I am currently having my own battle with mothballs. My son was taking care of my house when I left to care for my Mom, leaving most of my clothes behind. He -- Oh, so thoughtfully! -- closed up my bedroom, which sounds well and good, except that he decided to put the cat box in there when he was cat-sitting for me at one point.

    Apparently the litter box didn't leave as soon as the cat, and something in the litter or kitty debris bred or attracted moths – those tiny kind you usually find in an old bag of whole wheat flour or rice left too long in the pantry, but which if they escape can take over your entire pantry – the only solution for which is to open every box and bag of food and toss out anything infested.

    Not so easy to do with clothing! It seems he had closed my room up like a tomb, and didn’t notice the problem until the he walked in one day to a virtual CLOUD of moths! When I arrived one day, I nearly burst into tears. He assured me he had it under control – the way he reassures me about everything he knows will bring me to tears. Being environmentally savvy, he searched the Internet for solutions, but after trying everything anyone suggested to no avail, he finally resorted to mothballs! LOTS of mothballs! Mothballs in every corner and every drawer in the room! When I returned, the moths were dead. Even most of their larvae were dead. Note I said MOST, but not all.

    He was bagging things up to take to the Laundromat, where he planned to wash everything in very hot water. Not my first choice for handling many of my delicate things. So I said I would do it.

    Fearful I would take moths with me, he proceeded to put things in large plastic bags – WITH MOTH BALLS! I began bringing bags and bags of things with me on each trip, which I left in the garage until I had time to deal with them. Then I took each bag outside, opened it, and removed and inspected items one by one. To my horror, most were covered in moth larvae or their cocoons, some with still living tiny worms!

    I first picked them off one by one – a very tedious task indeed! I actually tossed out a couple of old things too badly infested to deal with. But then I had a better idea. I found an old stiff brush that made the job much easier. It helps if it’s a little windy out, so the debris blows away as you’re working!

    Next I began washing things. Once. Twice. Three times. To my dismay, things still smelled of mothballs! Back to the Internet! The solution is sunshine! Or, more technically, the natural ozone in sunshine which is nature’s own purifier! I knew that because I had an ozone air purifier! So I put things in a closed area, cranked that puppy up, and VOILA! No more mothball smells. Some things took a couple of days, but it absolutely works like a charm!
    Carolyn L. in Maryland

  41. Here is my 2 cents, never ever buy a used sweater that reeks of mothballs. You will rue the day you saw the beautiful 'have-to-have' sweater hanging on a rack that miraculously has been passed up by 100's of shoppers! I was one of those suckers, I bought 3 beautiful, never-had-been-washed wool sweaters. I debated for 30 minutes, should I, or shouldn't I? As they smelled of mothballs. Finally, I bought them, killer deal, one was from Australia! First thing I did was leave them in the garage, and then drop them at the dry cleaners. After I got them back, they still reeked. Oh what to do? I studied up on line, tried to wear them, no way could I breathe. I hung them out in the sun for weeks, yes, it helps, but when I would bring them in, the smell would come back again. I became so discouraged, I gave up, packed them away again, and that was that. The other day I found them again, I had forgotten how beautiful they were. I opened the sealed plastic bag and almost fell over backwards, the smell! So I tried to wear them again, staying down wind from friends, holding my breathe, and rolled the windows down in the car at 20 degrees, why not I thought, I am wearing a sumptuous wool sweater? Finally, I decided to dry clean them again, just got them back, at $9.00 a sweater, they smell just as bad or worse than before. As a matter of fact, I wonder if the dry cleaner has a contract out on me now. So, what's my point? Whatever you do, never ever buy a sweater that smells like mothballs, or use mothballs. I don't believe the smell ever completely leaves, and it will take years off your life seeing your expensive wool sweaters hanging out in the sun where the moths hang out. I am convinced that mothballs don't even repel moths, just humans!

    1. O.K. Update after all these years of fighting the noxious fumes of mothballs! If only people could be educated this is a very dangerous toxic poison. It should never have been invented let alone used in clothing and homes. Finally a miracle, I had made up my mind that the sweaters should be trashed. But out of desperation, I decided nothing lost at this point to soak them in a big tall industrial bucket outside with vinegar and wool light. I then let them hang in the Santa Fe sun. Guess what?? They are now odor free! Yes, even though they are stored in an open space-- they have nary an odor of ever having been saturated with mothballs. Somehow I won-- the mothball fragrance was defeated. The sweaters are not as pristine as if they would have been --had they never been washed-- but at least they can be worn this winter and didn't have to be trashed. Thanks for all your marvelous suggestions!

  42. it should not be allowed to be sold without big warnings. i have two beautiful wool coats that can not be put in the sun or washed..i guess they are going in the trash.what a shame they can sell a product so bad.

  43. P.S. I meant to say they are now stored in a closed up small space and still the smell has not returned. Before I could never store them in an area without constant fresh air unless they were sealed up like nuclear waste! They will not be stored in with my other sweaters yet, I still have the offending sweaters in isolation (just till winter). Cheers!


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  45. Hello, I am a moth ball expert! I should be since I have worked at the largest moth ball manufacturer for thirty years! I have heard it all and yes,old fashioned moth ball odor can be difficult to remove from stored clothing and household items. There is a BETTER solution when moth pesticides are necessary and that is Enoz Moth Cake, Enoz Moth Bar and Enoz Moth Ball Packets contain a different active ingredient and are designed to eliminate and prevent infestations in short term or day-to-day storage such as closets and garment bags. Designed to hang and available in unscented, cedar and linen fragrances. We do manufacture the Old Fashioned Moth Balls and would like everyone to follow the directions for use as this product is mis-used more than any of the products we manufacture. visit to learn more.

  46. Hello, I am a moth ball expert! I should be since I have worked at the largest moth ball manufacturer for thirty years! I have heard it all and yes,old fashioned moth ball odor can be difficult to remove from stored clothing and household items. There is a BETTER solution when moth pesticides are necessary and that is Enoz Moth Cake, Enoz Moth Bar and Enoz Moth Ball Packets contain a different active ingredient and are designed to eliminate and prevent infestations in short term or day-to-day storage such as closets and garment bags. Designed to hang and available in unscented, cedar and linen fragrances. We do manufacture the Old Fashioned Moth Balls and would like everyone to follow the directions for use as this product is mis-used more than any of the products we manufacture. visit to learn more.

  47. K.Buckley-Portland, OR8:16 PM, March 29, 2016

    I was bracing myself for my own horrible truth about the smell of mothballs from a beautiful shirt I got at a thrift store. I could not believe it smelled like mothballs after I washed it. I'd never used them, either, and neither did my mother. I went to Google to find out how to get rid of the odor, never dreaming it could be so difficult. After reading of your experience, OMG! and then I saw your picture of the clothes outside, everywhere, and read your comment about your new neighbors and started laughing! It cheered me up! Very nice post, and very good advice. Thanks!

  48. How did you remove the mothball smell from you washing machine? I'm having the same challenge as you did. The smell is horrible.

  49. How did you remove the mothball smell from you washing machine? I'm having the same challenge as you did. The smell is horrible.

  50. Just want to say thanks for the tip. I bought a vintage kimono at a Japanese festival and discovered when I got home that it reeked of moth balls. Went to the Web, found your tip, and put it in the sun. It only took a couple of hours and it's now fine. Miraculous! Thank you so much!!

  51. Waiting for the sun to come out here in Washington state. My mother gave me all her scrap fabric, it stinks to high heaven of mothballs, so do my parents and their entire house for years they have been living in the smell, no wonder they are so dingy. Trying the vinegar now just to dull the oder until we get sun, looking forward to trying it.

  52. i really like this article please keep it up.Eid Collection 2017

  53. Thank you so much! I was so worried that my kashmir scarves from India were ruined but an afternoon in the sun and they are mothball-smell free.