How to Get Rid of Mothball Smell

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Mothballs are a common home remedy due to their pesticidal properties and ability to negate other bad smells. The problem is that mothballs are themselves rather unpleasant smelling and tend to leave that odor behind long after the balls themselves dissolve.

Getting rid of that mothball smell can be difficult in many cases, but there are some great tried-and-true remedies out there.

Mothballs are considered a pesticide and using them in any way not specified on the label (including outdoor use) is considered illegal according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Check your local laws before use.

Identifying Mothballs

Mothballs resemble candy or gumballs, and are made almost exclusively with one of two active ingredients: naphthalene or paradichlorobenzine. Despite the latter being safer than the former, both of these are toxic chemicals. The balls dissolve over time into a gaseous form, resulting in that characteristic mothball scent.

Back in the day, they were commonly placed in cardboard boxes, cedar chests, and with items of clothing as a moth repellent. Since the smell of moth balls also repelled other critters, they became a popular remedy until their affect on pet and human health was discovered.

Today, mothballs look just like their original version, but are no longer made with naphthalene. Despite ongoing health concerns, many people (especially older folk) still use them.

Read Also: What Do Baby Moths Look Like?

What do Mothballs Smell Like?

While different people often answer this question differently, the basic consensus is that the scent of mothballs initially has a sweet smell which soon becomes pungent the longer you’re exposed to it.

As the fumes are toxic and can cause physical and neurological damage with over-exposure, it’s best to quickly get rid of the smell of mothballs, when possible.

How Long do Mothballs Last?

When exposed to the elements, a mothball will generally last for between four and six weeks. However, the fumes can last much longer, allowing mothballs to effectively last for several years if in an airtight container. The smell from clothing exposed to mothballs most commonly lasts until they’re washed.

Getting Rid of the Mothball Smell

While it’s possible to wait out that awful mothball smell, this isn’t recommended – in no small part because the poisonous residue will remain even after the smell dissipates. The good news is that getting rid of that stench is fairly simple and involves products you likely already have in your home.

Related: How to Get Rid of a Dead Mouse Smell

From Your Clothing

White vinegar is your best friend when it comes to washable clothes. You can either soak the clothes in an equal mix of water and vinegar overnight. Alternatively, you can run a cycle in the washer using a cup of vinegar instead of laundry detergent, followed by a cycle using your regular detergent. For delicates, you can also use a spray bottle instead of soaking.

An alternative to vinegar is unchlorinated bleach, although this is best reserved for whites or more durable materials such as jeans.

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From Your Furniture or Carpets

Depending on the material your furniture is made of, you may need to get an odor eliminator such as baking soda to safely get rid of the mothball smell. However, you can use a wet-vac for most couches and other fabric-covered furnishings or soft surfaces (including carpets).

See Also: How to Get Rid of Dust Mites from Upholstery

Here’s a simple, yet effective wet-vac (or steam vac) treatment you can try. Simply apply a layer of the 50/50 vinegar mix using the vac or a spray bottle. Next, go over the furniture as you normally would with the wet-vac.

Not only does this method get rid of the odor of mothballs, it will make the furnishings nice and clean. As a bonus, it even kills bed bugs, carpet beetles, fleas, termites, and other small pests.

From Your House

Getting the mothball smell out of a room or closet is a little more difficult than clothing, although the solutions themselves are simple. Bowls of vinegar or activated charcoal (available at most pet stores) will slowly absorb the odor safely.

You might also choose to use odor-absorbing candles, cedar chips, cinnamon sticks, or even coffee grounds. Just remember that you may need to change the item you choose frequently to have a maximum effect.

One popular method is to take a paper lunch bag and fill it baking soda, cedar chips, and coffee grounds. This curious potpourri will not only absorb the smell of mothballs, but it can make your drawers and closets (including any items of clothing stored inside) smell pleasant.

Related: Common Household Critters (Room by Room)

Using a Mothball Odor Eliminator

There are a number of mothball odor eliminators on the market, each with their own qualities. Most of these eliminators do a good job of eliminating the mothball smell. However, they are a more expensive solution than the ones above.

Note that you can’t use any old air freshener and expect it to eliminate the toxic chemical odors. Popular brands such as Glade usually only mask odors instead of eliminating them.

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Here are a couple mothball odor removal products we recommend:


16 thoughts on “How to Get Rid of Mothball Smell”

  1. What will work to get the smell of moth balls out of drawings my dad did over 60 years ago. The are drawings free hand for plumbing class. the smell is so bad. They have been in the garage airing out even putting them in the sun to see if that helps. Any thing you can do too to help I would appreciate.

  2. Thank you for your tips. I am dealing with Navajo rugs, just unpacked, permeated with mothball smell. They are airing in the sun outside this week. Dry cleaning is not recommended, so, if needed, maybe the 1:1 vinegar water with a wet vac will solve the problem.

  3. Can someone help, I made a huge mistake and I am panicking. We’ve had mice problems and someone told me to put mothballs. I have a gap under my kitchen sink, we dropped some in there quite a few I must say. And we can’t retrieve them at all. The smell is horrible in my home. I’ve tried vinegar and baking soda, gonzo charcoal and the smell is still pungent. I may be overly dramatic but I don’t wanna die cause of this any advice or tips would be greatly appreciated

    • This is quite an unfortunate predicament, as mothballs cans sometimes last for years. On top of that, the fumes can be absorbed by nearby objects, be it furniture, glass, or other materials.

      My first question would have to be the size of the hole. You were able to fit the mothballs in there easily, so would it be large enough to fit a hose in that’s slightly larger than the mothballs? If so, you can stick the other end of the hose in your vacuum cleaner’s hose attachment and seal it with a ring of cardboard and some duct tape. That would allow you to suck up most or all of the balls. You can use an angled mirror (you can get them in the oral care section of most pharmacy stores) and a flashlight or penlight to peer into the hole and look for any you’ve missed.

      My second question would be regarding where the hole leads and the materials around it. You might have to spend some money, but the best option may be to rip up the floor at that gap (or temporarily pull out the sink), remove the mothballs, then seal the gap using cement, wood, or stone (depending on the size and shape of the hole as well as what it connects to). This will allow you to remove the mothballs, bleach or soak the area in vinegar, and seal it so mice cannot get back in through that entry point.

      In any case, try to avoid letting any children or pets wander into the kitchen and keep the room well-ventilated. It may also be best to temporarily remove as many items as possible so they won’t absorb the odor.

      I wish I had a better (and cheaper) answer for you, but these are the two most viable options I can see, and the sooner you get the mothballs out of there, the less it will soak into the walls and floor of your kitchen.

      • Thank you so much for replying, I did try using our vacuum to retrieve some of the balls. I was only able to retrieve 2. It’s a little tough to maneuver the hose in such a tight spot. I have poured some bleach, vinegar and even baking soda in the holes and I truly don’t think it’s really helping.

        I think I will have to call my landlord and hope he can help with the big mess I created. Once again thank you so much.

  4. What do you recommend to treat a popup camper? We are considering buying one but it has been treated with mothballs and I am very concerned about neuro damage since we have to live in it once or twice a year. Should we chance it and try treating the smell or move on to something without mothballs.

    • Using mothballs during winter (especially Northern areas) is common in the RV community. Airing it out for a couple days usually enough to get rid of most of the smell. The quickest method would be an ozone generator. This Enerzen model is quite popular with RVers.

  5. We allowed a friend going through a tough time to move in for a month or two. She apparently put mothballs in her attic that she moved out of. Now my brand new house smells like mothballs. She only moved her cloths and a few personal items in. Is there enough of a residual effect to cause harm? How long will the smell last? What can I do to get rid of the smell? I don’t want to be rude and ask her to wash all of her clothes but don’t know what else to do.

    • I’d recommend using an ozone generator like Enerzen or something similar in the attic since it’s hard to vent out an area like that. Activated charcoal and Room Shocker are other products that help remove the smell. For the rest of the house, lots of air movement/exchange (fans, open windows) is the best thing to do.

      Keep in mind that just because you can smell moth balls, it doesn’t mean it’s automatically harmful. The toxic chemical naphthalene can be smelled by humans at a MUCH lower threshold than what’s considered harmful exposure.

  6. I would try ozium spray that can be purchased online or at some stores it is a strong scent remover on top of regular cleanings.You can also buy scent bombs made for vehicles just leave and come back ,Orange peels may also help

    • If it is really bad leave the windows open and rent an ozium machine that can cover the worst of smells it can be dangerous if you breathe to much sao follow given direction and dont use it in a room you sleep in this will remove it 100%,DOnt worry i just put 20 mothballs in my room its making me sick im going to do all the stuff i just mentioned

  7. I followed some bad advice to rid my shed of mice and squirrels. We used a box of moth balls putting them in the eves with hopes of removing the home of the varmints. I went in this am and dang near killed my self, (not really but pretty dang close). I opened the doors to the shed before retreating outdoors. I got myself plenty of fresh air and some baking soda, to calm my stomach! That’s what you get when you don’t verify something before going ahead and doing it. Lesson learned! We’ll have to hire someone to vacuum up any left-over mothballs. And remove the eves and remove any nests. Thanks for your forum. I will check your site out again before jumping too far into home projects.

    • Don’t feel bad. A LOT of people have used mothballs in ways they are not intended. It probably has to do with the fact that it’s known more of as a household product (like a cleaner) rather than a pesticide. But because it works well for many other pests (other than moths) and can be purchased easily and for a relatively low cost, other sites and forums state various creative uses for it (no matter how dangerous it may be). This is one of those products that directions on the label should be strictly followed.

  8. I purchased 100 space saving slim cd/dvd covers that smell like moth balls. Is it possible to get rid of the smell from plastic? Is the smell dangerous?

    • Naphthalene (used to make mothballs) is also used in the production of many types of plastic (like jewel cases). The amount used in that purpose is quite low and shouldn’t be harmful unless someone has a severe sensitivity to the chemical. Letting the product naturally air out should eventually get rid of the smell but having activated charcoal or baking soda nearby may speed up the process.


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