Amanda Paige’s step-by-step guide to tackling mothball smell from any surface.
Before we get into the smell, what exactly is a mothball?
We all store all sorts of things from time to time, whether it’s our favorite sweater that’s out of season, or an old rug we can’t part ways with just yet.
Enter mothballs. These small pellets made of deodorant and pesticides have traditionally been used to keep moths away from chewing through our clothes and furniture when they sit in storage. They do their job at killing and repelling moths and many other insects, but they have extremely pungent smells, and the unfortunate odor they leave behind is almost guaranteed to outlast their shelf life, by a lot.
When you smell the mothball odor, you’re literally smelling storage. While your items are sitting in storage, mothballs give off a toxic vapor that not only kills moths, but also repels other insects. While they do a great job of keeping those pesky pests away, they also love to linger: over time, the balls or crystals break into even smaller, hard-to-spot pieces and particles that seep into the pores of wooden furniture, sofa cushions, the fabric of our clothing, or even the closet interiors or dressers we keep them in.
The mothball smell is caused by the chemicals in it, like naphthalene—which is also present in tobacco smoke. These chemicals actually make mothballs harmful to our health and the health of our children and pets, in addition to emitting an unpleasant odor. Overexposure to mothballs can cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness and other health repercussions when inhaled.
If you’ve found yourself using mothballs, or recently brought home some thrift store finds with the unmistakable odor, follow my simple tips below for how to get rid of that smell you can’t ignore. (Not sure if what your smelling is mothballs? check out this in-depth guide to identifying and eliminating all different odors throughout your home.)
The smell can attach itself to a variety of places, rooms, or things for much longer than you even intended to use mothballs for.
Mothballs are initially used to protect your clothes, but can actually end up making them unwearable because of the odor they leave behind. But fear not — it can be removed!
There’s a reason white vinegar has earned a permanent spot on basically every list of DIY household cleaning ingredients: It contains acetic acid, which allows it to neutralize alkaline odors and effectively act as a natural deodorizer. The staple ingredient is cheap and versatile, and kid- and pet-safe—I could go on and on about its benefits. In this case, white vinegar is good for clothing, specifically, because it will remove mothball odor without causing any new stains. Run your washer with the affected clothing in a cycle using just one cup of white vinegar.
After the vinegar goes to work removing the mothball odor, it makes sense to actually wash your clothing the normal way. Running a wash as usual will only further aid in freshening up your garments. Run this second wash cycle using your regular detergent.
I love using the Febreze Fabric Refresher regularly to keep clothes smelling fresh and to prevent any unwanted odors—especially after I’ve just completed the process above.
Mothball odor can seep into the grains of wood furniture or the fibers of fabric furniture, and the smell can last for years—no exaggeration! Here’s how to get it out.
This may seem obvious, but the first step is removing any existing mothballs from inside or around the furniture.
Make a solution of equal parts water and vinegar and use it to either spray or wipe down wood furniture before allowing the surfaces to air dry. Then, if that piece of furniture has drawers, shelves, cabinets, or any enclosed spaces, place a bowl of coffee grounds or baking soda inside—both of which absorb odors.
For fabric-covered furniture, like a couch, sprinkle baking soda liberally across the furniture. It’s important to note that the result won’t be immediate and will need time, so let the baking soda sit for anywhere from one hour to overnight to absorb that stinky mothball smell.
Once the baking soda has sat long enough to absorb the smell, vacuum it up.
When it comes to tackling mothball scent, cleaning the interior of your closest is just as important as cleaning the clothes that hang inside.
Any time you clean the interior of your closet—to tackle mothball smell or something else—you should always start by removing any of the offending clothing items from the closet.
Built-in shelving, shoe racks, or clothing rods should be wiped down with a wet or dry rag and multi-surface cleaner.
Place bowls of white vinegar (notice a theme?), an open box of baking soda, or a bowl of coffee grounds in the closet, and change it out frequently until the scent is absorbed and gone.
This is the last step to removing the mothball smell and it’s an important one! Reset your closet with some cedar chips—which are natural insect deterrents—or using an air freshener like Febreze Small Spaces Peony & Cedar.
Next time you catch a whiff of mothballs in the air, don’t despair — there are plenty of tricks to have your clothing, furniture, and closets smelling fresh and clean once more. And it doesn’t have to end there — check out these 25 tips to make your entire house smell good.