How to deal with moths: Cleaning and smoke bombs

Friday, March 27th 2020
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This is a personal article about the journey I’ve been on to counter clothes moths, and the regimen I’ve found that works. For anyone that would like a quick summary, it comprises:

  • Fumigating at least once a year, using something like Pest Expert. 
  • Cleaning clothes regularly, and storing them clean. 
  • Cleaning wardrobes, shelves and drawers. 
  • Then using repellents, only to reduce future infestations.

One of the things I’ve managed to do while stuck at home recently is a proper Spring clean. 

I’ve moved all the furniture and hoovered behind it. I’ve taken all my clothes out of the closet and cleaned the shelves. 

I got into this habit a few years ago, less because I like to keep a tidy home in general, and more because I wanted to counter clothes moths. 

Clothes moths like dirty, natural materials. Not necessarily filthy or muddy, but a little sweaty and dusty - covered in the normal accumulations of daily wear.

The easiest way to deal with them, therefore, is to clean clothes regularly: wash knitwear occasionally and dry clean tailoring. 

And importantly, store things clean. If you put clothes away for a period of months, like summer suits, then make sure you clean them first. Moths need clothes that are undisturbed. They need to lay their eggs in the materials, have them sit there, hatch, and then the larva start eating at the wool, all without being disturbed. 

Part and parcel of this is keeping the places where the clothes are stored, clean too. Hence my Spring clean. 

I’ve tried many different methods for dealing with moths over the years. 

I love my clothes: they have often represented significant investments, and it kills me when they get eaten. There haven’t been many, but I’d say a half dozen pieces of knitwear have been destroyed in the past.*

Those methods have included:

  • Sticky strips. Quite effective but only attract the male moths, so prevent breeding but nothing else.
  • Cedar wood. Often sold (perhaps by hanger manufacturers) as anti-moth, but only seems to have a limited effect, even when regularly ‘topped up’ with a spray.
  • Conkers. Apparently a natural repellent, but no more effective than cedar. 
  • Lavender, mothballs and in fact any other scent. I once read that actually any strong smell would put off moths, and so I sprayed cedar balls with various perfumes. Same effect as above.
  • Freezing. Definitely works, but means you have to put all your clothes in the freezer once or twice a year (in a plastic bag). Impractical, even if you have a chest freezer.
  • Heat. Apparently just as effective as cold, but our attic is boiling in the summer, yet didn’t kill them. 
  • Cleaning carpets and upholstery. Definitely an issue. Moths can live in both, and what you’re trying to destroy in your clothes may actually be in other materials. But still, only a partial solution.
  • Cleaning anything pre-owned or vintage. Always a good idea - or at least, checking with the shop whether the clothes have already been thoroughly cleaned. Freezing is also good here.
  • Storing in plastic. Always a good idea with clothes that are in storage (though ideally they should have some breathable areas too). But impractical with any knitwear you wear regularly. 
  • Moth sprays. I’ve tried two different brands of sprays (Zeroin and Acana), both of which resulted in a reduction of moths, but still some issues. 

The turning point for me came last year, when I started regularly fumigating my cupboards and the attic.

I decided to ask a tailor what they do - something that I probably should’ve done earlier. They said they, in turn, used something recommended by the mills - who of course have more fabric to protect than anyone. 

That treatment was a fumigation product called Formula P Super Fumer, from Pest Expert

This is a small plastic container (above), with a paper wick under the lid. You put the container on a plate or tile, light the wick, and it burns briefly before turning into smoke, which issues into the room for 10-20 seconds.

You then close the doors and windows, and leave for 2-3 hours. The tailor I spoke to said they left it over the weekend. I usually leave it from morning til evening. The smoke kills the larvae and moths, and leaves no residue or smell on the clothes. 

I usually open all my wardrobe and drawers, and put the fumer a foot or so away from them. In the attic, though, I have freestanding rails with clothes, and put the fumer underneath the clothes there. 

I have to say, the products themselves haven’t always been that reliable. 

Some fumers haven’t lit easily, and the larger Formula P+ Fogger (centre in the picture above, white cap) is hard to use. It has the advantage of not having to be lit, but you have to press the top and then turn to secure it, which is not easy to do while smoke is escaping all around you. 

Generally though, the smaller Super Fumers have been OK, and effective. I haven’t had any significant moth issues since. 

The company advises the use of their repellents and sticky strips after this kind of treatment, but I haven’t found them necessary. 

One thing that is perhaps important to emphasise is the difference between preventing, and killing. 

Most treatments, such as moth balls and strips etc, are only useful to prevent moths. They stop them breeding, or repel them. But if you already have moths in your clothes, they’re useless. 

For that you need a product that kills, like fumigation (or freezing). I operate on the assumption that every year I have probably failed to prevent at least some moths. So I do both fumigation and repelling. 

I guess you could call it a belt and braces approach.  

*The only silver lining is that the pieces that get destroyed are the ones you wear least - because of the point above that moths need to be undisturbed. Which is also a reason to be particularly careful with protection of occasion wear, such as black tie. 

Feature on how I store clothes more generally coming next week

Photography: Jamie Ferguson or Pest Expert