What Are Mothballs Used For?

From protecting clothing to deterring pests, discover their practical applications for a fresh and moth-free environment

February 8, 2024
min read
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For decades, mothballing with naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene (pDCB) crystals protected out-of-season garments and furnishings from insect damage. But research reveals mothballs pose concerning health and environmental risks with limited effectiveness against newer pesticide-resistant species. Safer methods better preserve fabrics without toxic chemicals.

What are Mothballs?

Mothballs consist of either naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene - two active pesticidal ingredients crystallized into balls or flakes with an intensely strong, unpleasant odor. The powerful fumes kill clothing moths and carpet beetles on contact and repel future ones landing nearby.

Traditionally, they protected stored wool, cashmere, fur and other animal-derived fabrics vulnerable to insect larvae infestations that digest protein-rich fibers as food sources when laid eggs hatch. Heavy saturation discouraged textile pests from nesting to spawn destructive offspring.

However, the formula intensity required to effectively repel increasingly pesticide-resistant modern insects also poses toxicity issues for humans and pets exposed to concentrated vapors in confined storage areas over time.

What Can Mothballs Be Used For?

Beyond clothing protection, mothballs’ prickly odor and pesticidal properties curb insects from colonizing wide range of household items in storage including:

Wool Rugs - Mothball flakes sprinkled under rolled carpets prevented larvae from emerging from hidden egg sacks woven into backing or seams to munch wool pile from underneath when dormant periods ended.

Upholstered Furniture - Sofas, chairs and cushions filled with animal hair stuffing often sat mothballed with layers of strong crystals pressed into upholstery crevices where adult moths laid eggs undetected.

Stuffed Taxidermy - Museum curation used mothballs like naphthalene to preserve myriad species of insect-susceptible animal specimens wrapped or staged with wool felt, fur and feathers. This prevented future infestation.

Collections Containing Animal-based Materials - Hobbyist stamp, butterfly and insect collections mounted or stored using wool or leather risked larvae damage. Mothballs protected irreplaceable assembled samples from loss.

Attics/Cabins During Vacancies - Aged, remote seasonal structures relied on opened mothball sacks placed through interiors to prevent nesting rodents from infesting vacant shelters between occupancies.

However, increased pesticide resistance minimizes effectiveness on target species while the formula intensity poses unnecessary health hazards to building occupants upon returning if ventilation proves inadequate.

What Are Mothballs Made Of?

Traditional mothballs contain either naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene as active ingredients. Both maintain semi-solid states at room temperature.

Naphthalene derives from coal tar or petroleum distillation as a volatile solid that sublimates from solid to gas releasing toxic fumes. Its chemical bonds produce a strong, sickly-sweet odor detectible at extremely low concentrations.

Paradichlorobenzene also emits a harsh, penetrating chemical stench at low levels. Produced through chlorination of benzene, it lacks naphthalene’s sublimative quality so maintains a crystallized solid form instead of dissipating like volatile organics.

Both mothball varieties resist mixing with water and cling to surfaces they contact. However, the chemical stability intensifying potency and longevity simultaneously increases user risks.

How Do Mothballs Work?

Mothballs effectively repel and kill moths and larvae through two key mechanisms:

Toxic Effects – Concentrated fumes penetrate insect respiration systems when inhaled, poisoning nerves and digestive tracts. Vapor saturation in confined storage spaces amplifies paralysis and mortality rates.

Odor Repellency – Moths locate nutritious food sources like wool and silk fabrics by scent. Mothballs release an intense, uncomfortable odor that drives them away from laying eggs in target storage areas when vapors reach higher levels than background smells.

However, declining effectiveness as insect pesticide resistance strengthens means reaching and sustaining maximum fume saturation for storage protection. This simultaneously concentrates vapors to dangerous levels for human or animal respiratory health inside enclosed household spaces.

Why Are Mothballs Banned in the EU?

In the 1990s, the European Union banned mothballs for household use citing consumer safety issues and eco toxicity of ingredients. (They remain available for professional textile and museum curation applications only.)

Policymakers pointed to research on concentrated exposure health consequences plus lack of safety equipment in home use scenarios to justify the ban.

Health Dangers

  • Nerve damage
  • Liver & kidney problems
  • Asthma & respiratory distress
  • Headaches & dizziness
  • Eye, skin & throat irritation

Environmental Impact

  • Air pollution from volatile emissions
  • Soil & groundwater contamination
  • Hazardous chemical persistence in landfills
  • Toxic runoff from pesticidal trace residues

However, home use continues outside the EU despite recognized risks when safer alternatives exist. Many countries now seek to restrict access to better public health through policy updates.

Dangers of Mothballs

Beyond the banned EU mothball warning, research reveals extensive risks associated with exposure to naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene concentrated vapors.

Indoor Air Quality Issues

Mothball vapors degrade indoor air quality when used in confined household spaces like wardrobes and chests. Prolonged contact causes respiratory irritation, asthma attacks, persistent coughs and breathing difficulty.

Lifespan Volatility – Unlike fast dissipating aerosols, mothballs emit poisonous fumes for months from a single application. This increases toxicity when used without timed ventilation cycles to protect local air quality.

Child Safety Factors

Ingesting mothballs hospitalizes thousands annually though poisoning incidents decreased following added bittering agents. However, the long-term neurological impact on small bodies remains unknown. Just a few mothballs can be fatal if eaten.

Absorption & Transfer – Babies and small children face additional mothball vapor dangers as skin contact transfers toxic chemicals through their pores up to one hundred times faster than adults.

Environmental Contamination

With persistence lasting years and solubility in fats, mothball chemicals accumulate up the food chain once released outdoors or poured down drains into watersheds. Runoff also poisons plants and groundwater long term.

Difficult Decontamination & Disposal – There are no simple neutralizing chemicals to render mothballs safe for standard waste disposal. Special hazardous materials handling protocols apply instead to capture for dedicated high temperature incineration.

cedar wood moth balls

Difference Between Mothballs and Repellents

When it comes to moth control products, the terms "mothballs" and "cedar-based repellents" are often used interchangeably, but understanding their key differences is crucial for enhancing home storage safety.


  • Pesticidal fumes
  • Mode of Action: Chemical poisoning
  • Requires maximum vapor concentration
  • Toxic for humans & pets
  • Safety Profile: Long-term air quality degradation
  • Persistent post-disposal contamination
  • Banned in EU, reducing global availability
  • Regulation: Marked for elimination under UN Rotterdam Convention

Cedar Repellents:

  • Botanical aromatic oils
  • Mode of Action: Scent confusion
  • Effective at low natural levels
  • Non-toxic exposure
  • Safety Profile: Improves air quality
  • Biodegrades rapidly
  • Legal worldwide
  • Exempt from chemical review

With declining efficacy against resistant target species, mothballs pose unreasonable toxicity risks compared to cedar-based repellents' safe, effective protection. Understanding these distinctions is essential for making informed choices in maintaining a safe home environment.

Safer Alternatives to Mothballs

Traditional home storage moth protections centered on intense chemical fumigations. But natural botanical aromatics deter pests effectively without concentrating risky vapors long term.

Cedar Wood – Red and white cedar release innate insect-confusing oils that mimic moth pheromones to disguise clothes, wool and cotton. Its light aroma is pleasant for humans while repelling moths. Use cedar blocks, chests, shelves, hangers and sachets near fabrics.

Dried Herb SachetsLavender, rosemary, thyme, mint and sage contain oils that naturally repel moths with pleasant natural scents. Sew dried buds into tiny permeable drawstring bags to lay among stored clothes and linens. Freshen faded sachets in sunlight.

Cedar Oil Sprays – Derived from cedarwood, concentrated cedar sprays applied around baseboards and storage units provide long lasting moth confusion and repellency indoors without toxicity to humans or pets. Just avoid direct contact with susceptible textiles to prevent potential staining.

Diatomaceous Earth Dust – The ultra fine, razor sharp fossilized algae particles slice through insects with protective shell coatings. Sprinkled in attics, walls and storage containers, diatomaceous earth desiccates larvae through abrasions without harming humans or mammals. Reapply after cleaning.

Mothballs may seem like traditional protection passed through generations, but safer, validated alternatives prevent pest destruction without endangering your family’s health using harsh chemicals unnecessarily.

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About Wood Blocks

Our mission is to empower you with the knowledge to curate a wardrobe that not only reflects your personal style but also aligns with environmentally friendly practices. From exploring the wonders of natural mothballs and sustainable garment storage to diving deep into DIY solutions and green living, we're here to guide you on a journey towards a more eco-conscious, stylish, and intentional lifestyle.

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