When someone tucks mothballs into a box of rarely used clothing, they're thinking about keeping moths out of those clothes and not about whether anyone will ever again want to wear something that smells like mothballs, even if it's free of holes. Getting mothball odors out of fabrics is unfortunately a hit-or-miss project. Clothing that was stored in direct contact with mothballs for years might never smell truly fresh again, but minor mothball damage may be reversible.
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The Trouble With Mothballs
Most mothballs are made from chemicals that can be effective as insecticides but are potentially dangerous for people and pets. They're commonly made from naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene, which are hydrocarbons that can cause side effects like dizziness as well as long-term organ damage. That's why it's safer to use things like cedar blocks and chips to deter moths and other insects from eating your stored clothing.
Mothballs turn from solid to vapor over time. When clothing is stored with mothballs, some of those insecticide molecules may cling to the fabric and cause that unpleasant odor. A trip through the washing machine with your normal detergent isn't going to be enough to get rid of mothball smell.
Because the ingredients in mothballs can be toxic, take extra care with clothing for children. Never let kids wear clothes that still smell of mothballs since this means some of the insecticide is still on the fabric. Babies can actually develop anemia after being exposed to clothing stored in mothballs. If you can't get the smell out completely, don't let kids wear the clothes.
White Vinegar to the Rescue?
While there's no guarantee that anything will completely remove the mothball smell from clothing, white vinegar is a good place to start. It's a go-to DIY laundry disinfectant because it's cheap, readily available, and safe to use on many kinds of fabrics. Vinegar can be very effective at getting a variety of odors out of clothing.
For washer-safe clothing, put them alone in the washer with 1/2 cup of vinegar and run the machine through a cycle using the hottest water allowed by the clothing's care label. Follow by washing the clothes again with your normal detergent. Alternatively, add 1/2 cup of vinegar to a bucket of water and let the clothes soak in it for an hour or so before washing them with detergent.
Other Ways to Fight Mothball Odors
Washing in vinegar is just one strategy that can be used to get stubborn smells out of clothing. Deodorizing is one of the many uses of OxiClean and other oxygen bleaches. Follow package directions to either soak or machine wash clothes using OxiClean with Odor Blasters or a similar product.
If you're not in a hurry, you may also try putting clothes back in storage and surrounding them with activated charcoal sachets, which absorb odors over time. Check back on your clothes after a week to determine whether the mothball odor is fading. There are also mothball deodorizer products for sale that claim to absorb mothball odors specifically.
You can also try airing out clothes outdoors on a breezy day or sprinkling clothing with baking soda and letting it sit overnight to absorb odors, but neither of these methods alone will completely get rid of mothball odors.