How to Get That Mothball Smell Out of Your Old Furniture
Follow these expert steps, and you'll be breathing easy in no time.
Once used freely to knock out pesky clothing moths, pungent mothballs come with their own set of issues—namely, they're made with one of two toxic pesticides (naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene). "These chemicals work by transforming from solids into odorous vapors," says Kari Warberg Block, founder of EarthKind, a company that makes plant-based bug deterrents. When repeatedly inhaled, they can trigger headaches, nausea, dizziness, and even anemia. (If you have an active infestation or want to take measures to prevent one, follow our guide to moth-proofing your home sans mothballs.) To make matters worse, the smelly gases can easily embed themselves in the grain of wooden furniture, imparting a stench that can endure for years.
Luckily, with some tough intervention and patience, it can be banished. Here, Warberg Block shares her top methods.
Leave bowls of cat litter, white vinegar, or coffee grounds—all of which neutralize smells—in the drawers or compartments of a dresser or wardrobe. "Activated charcoal is also a powerful absorbent that's sold in little bags in organizational and home stores," says Warberg Block. "It works by trapping odors in little catacombs, eliminating them naturally." We like the Moso Bamboo Charcoal Bags (from $10, containerstore.com). Or, try EarthKind's Stay Away Moths Pouches ($26 for 4, earthkind.com), which are filled with absorptive corncob and cedar wood, and fragrant essentials oils like rose and citronella; these can both reduce the odor and keep the pests away.
Fresh Air and Heat
Together, they can lift unwanted aromas from wood. If you can, take the piece outside on a sunny day and remove any drawers. "The heat will speed up the sublimation process, turning any remaining mothball particles into gas that can drift away," Warberg Block says, "and the ventilation of an outdoor or garage space will keep it from settling into other soft surfaces in your home." If the item can't be moved easily, try opening the windows in the room where it's located and aiming a blow-dryer or space heater at it (from a safe distance) for 15 to 30 minutes daily for up to three days. For this approach, wear a face mask to minimize inhalation of the fumes.
If the above strategies don't work, your last resort is to lightly sand all of the item's exterior and interior surfaces, including drawers and shelves. Though the most time-consuming of the methods, this can work well by physically stripping the piece of the smelly particles. When you're done, it's important to seal and re-stain or re-paint it; turn to this expert guide to get started.
Martha Stewart Living, June 2020