Clothes moths can be very destructive because they nest and feed on wool, furs, and other natural or blended fabrics. There are two species of clothes moths that are commonly found in homes in North America: the webbing clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella) and the casemaking clothes moth (Tinea pellionella). These two moth species are similar in size but have several distinguishing characteristics.
Webbing clothes moth adults are about 1/4 inch long with a wingspan of about 1/2 inch. They are gold to yellowish-gray in color and have reddish-gold to coppery hairs on their heads. Webbing clothes moth larvae are creamy-white with dark-colored heads and are about 1/3 to 1/2 inch long.
Casemaking clothes moth adults also are about 1/4 inch long with a wingspan of about 1/2 inch. They are gold in color and have light gold hairs on their heads and brownish wings with spots. This moth makes a silken, tube-like "case" around its body, which it carries with it. It feeds from both ends of the case and uses it for shelter when disturbed. The moth larvae are about 1/3 to 1/2 inch long, with pale yellow to white bodies and brown heads. The larvae also have cases, which take on the color of the fabric on which the larva feed.
3 Ways to Get Rid of Clothes Moths
The first step to dealing with a clothes moth infestation is to positively identify the pest and to look for likely areas where the larvae might be thriving. Adult clothes moths do not feed—only the larvae are directly responsible for damage—so exterminating the adults doesn't solve the problem. Adult females can lay 40 to 50 eggs at a time.
Of the two common types of these pests, webbing clothes moths are much more common, but casemaking moths may be easier to locate because of their cases. If you see adult moths in a closet or other dark area or you find clothes with damage, inspect the area and all fabric items immediately and thoroughly. Bring the clothes into a bright area for better inspection, to disturb the moths (they don't like light or movement), and to begin eradication measures.
Dry Clean or Wash the Fabrics
You can remove clothes moth larvae from clothes and other fabric items by washing them in a clothes washer in very hot water; it must be over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This might require turning up your water heater; while 120 to 125 degrees is the most standard temperature setting, the water will lose some heat on its way to the washer. A more effective method is to dry clean the items, and this is necessary with many wool, silk, and delicate items to prevent damage to the fabric.
Kill Them With Cold
If you're opposed to washing affected items for any reason, you can try freezing the moths instead. Place each item in a polyethylene plastic bag (such as a zip-type storage bag), seal it well, using tape if necessary, and place it in a freezer that maintains a temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Keep the items in the freezer for one week, then remove them and air them out. A good seal is important for preventing frost and condensation, which could damage the items.
Kill Them With Heat
Clothes moth larvae cannot survive in temperatures higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so you can kill them in an oven or clothes dryer. For wool or other heat-resistant, all-natural items, set your oven to higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, place the items on a baking sheet, and set it on the center rack of the oven. Leave them in for 30 minutes, then remove the items and let them cool. Be sure not to try this method with synthetic or heat-sensitive fabrics or anything containing plastic buttons or other synthetic features. Kill moths on dryable items by running them in the clothes dryer on high heat for at least 30 minutes.
Clean the Affected Area
Thoroughly vacuum the closet, chest, box, or other area where the affected items were stored. Pay close attention to corners and edges where they may find a food source. If the area is carpeted, vacuum it carefully, and consider having it professionally cleaned if it is really dirty. Moths will not feed on synthetic carpet fibers, but any carpet can provide food sources by capturing pet hair and other natural materials.
In addition to storage areas, clothes moths can infest furniture and often can be found underneath and even inside of couches, chairs, and other upholstered items. Careful inspection and vacuuming is the best way to get rid of them here.
What Causes Clothes Moths?
In addition to cloth and wool, clothes moth larvae feed on fur, mohair, hair, and feathers, and on fabrics blended with such natural fibers. They will also feed on dead insects. The moths lay their eggs on the fabric or other material, gluing them in place. The hatched larvae then feed on and spin webbing on the items, causing further damage and leaving holes as they feed. Clothes moths are usually are carried into the home on infested articles that are placed near another feeding source, e.g., wool clothing. This then becomes infested as well.
Clothes moths are most attracted to fabrics that are stained or have perspiration spots or urine residue. This is because these stains provide the larvae with the nutrients that they need, such as vitamin B and salt.
Since clothes moths stay in dark places and hide if disturbed, they often are not noticed until after they have damaged the fabric that they infest. The most obvious signs of clothes moth presence are holes, webbing, or dried larval cases.
Ideal conditions for clothes moth growth, activity, and egg-laying are warmth and humidity, so they are less common in dry climates. The moths are most active above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but lower temperatures will not necessarily kill them, it just slows them down.
How to Prevent Clothes Moths
Once you’ve successfully controlled clothes moths, keep them from coming back with a few basic strategies. In general, don’t entice them with food and hiding places. Clean natural fiber clothes and other goods thoroughly before placing them in long-term storage; don’t store clothes with
sweat or body oils. Store valuable or cherished items in vacuum-sealed bags, or keep them in airtight containers, such as plastic bins that have all gaps and seams sealed with tape.
Clean clothes closets frequently, and routinely inspect for signs of moths. Always wash clothes before putting them away. Rotate clothes within the closet to ensure some items aren’t languishing in the dark corners. Frequently worn clothes and other items are less susceptible to infestation due to the moths’ aversion to light and movement. For special dresses or suits that you wear infrequently but keep in the closet, store them in plastic (not fabric) garment bags that have all openings sealed with tape.
Clothes Moths vs. Indian Meal Moths
Clothes moths are often confused with Indian meal moths, but the two are actually very different, primarily in the materials on which they feed and the places they are found. Indian meal moths are primarily pantry pests that feed on human food sources.
Indian meal moths are about 3/8 inch long. Unlike the smooth-headed Indian meal moth, the clothes moth has a tuft of hair on its head, and clothes moths are usually lighter in color than Indian meal moths.
Clothes moths do not fly well and are not attracted to light. Indian meal moths fly well and are attracted to light. When clothes moths do fly, it is very fluttery. The flight of the Indian meal moth is strong and steady. A clothes moth at rest is much easier to catch than an Indian meal moth.
Clothes moths are found in dark areas close to the fabrics they are infesting. Indian meal moths and other pantry pests will be found in and around pantries and foods and will fly farther from their food source.
Do mothballs get rid of clothes moths?
Mothballs can be effective for killing clothes moth larvae, but the conditions must be just right; namely, the balls (or other forms) must be used in a small, contained area (such as a chest) that is not frequently opened or ventilated. They do not work in most household closets. Plus, they are dangerous around children and pets. Therefore, most experts discourage the use of mothballs for clothes moth treatment.
Are clothes safe in cedar closets or chests?
Cedar contains natural volatile oils that are repellant and potentially lethal to clothes moths. However, the high concentration of volatile oils required to kill moths is difficult to achieve even in a closed chest, and it’s nearly impossible to achieve in a standard clothes closet. You might want to use cedar if you like the smell, but don’t rely on it to prevent moth damage.
Is there a test for clothes moths?
Businesses in the clothing and fur industries commonly use pheromone-baited traps to monitor moth presence. This type of trap attracts male moths, which get stuck to an adhesive surface inside the trap, much like a fly strip. Traps are not effective for preventing moth damage, and they have no effect on larvae or female adult moths, but male moths found in traps are a clear warning that you have an infestation so you can take immediate action.