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What’s Wrong with Mothballs?

On this month’s Moth Hotline, Bruce from California wants to know the deets on why I recommend against mothballs.

Hey Moth Guy!

You take a pretty strong stance against mothballs. When I was a kid, my grandmother would put her clothes in a trunk and toss in a few mothballs to keep the moths away. It always worked out fine for her. I’m wondering: why don’t you like them? After all, they are called MOTHBALLS for a reason. Lol. Thanks.


Bruce, thanks for your question.

In theory, mothballs “work” in much the same way that nuclear weapons, Five Dollar Foot Longs, and Twitter trolls work… yes, they technically get the job done. But, here’s the deal.

There once was a time when mothballs were a useful tool against moths (and they’ve also been successfully deployed against rodents and other pests). In your grandmother’s example, she would put clothing in a permeable barrier that was exposed to the elements. Even a trunk does not form a perfect seal, so the solution was to repel (and kill) moths by placing the mothballs inside. The gas accumulates inside, and voila! Dead moths.

I’m guessing your grandmother used mothballs because there weren’t any vacuum-sealing bags in her day. If she had these, it would have prevented her from needing moth balls. Also, keep in mind that the efficacy of mothballs is unlocked only beyond a certain parts-per-million concentration. You would need a closed container that lets the dichlorobenzene gas accumulate in a great enough concentration to kill the moths. As your grandmother probably knew, simply tossing them in the closet is not a way to protect against moths because you would need hundreds of mothballs to adequately gas the closet. And in that case, you would render your entire house virtually uninhabitable due to the noxious odor.

I’ve written extensively about what you can buy instead of mothballs. Start by vacuum-sealing your clothes for long-term storage. And leave the mothballs in the 20th century, with asbestos, lead paint, and Chia Pets.

Fight the good fight.

-The Moth Guy

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