What are Mothballs?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Mothballs are small balls made from chemicals which repel moths. They are used to prevent moths from chewing on garments and other things placed in storage, ensuring that these items will be in good shape when someone is ready to use them. Many hardware stores sell mothballs, as do some department stores and home supply stores. Mothballs should be stored in a sealed container at all times, as they can be hazardous to human health.

Moth balls.
Moth balls.

Camphor was historically used to make mothballs, but modern mothballs are made from naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene. In all cases, these chemicals emit a very distinctive strong odor as they sublimate from a solid to a gaseous state. The gas will kill moths and their larvae, ensuring that they do not colonize items in storage. Studies on mothballs have suggested that they may be carcinogenic, so people should be careful around them.

Moth balls.
Moth balls.

For mothballs to work, they must be kept in a sealed container, which will allow the gas to build up. This also is safer for humans and animals in the same house, as they will not be exposed to the gas. When someone wants to use something which has been mothballed in storage, it should be aired for a day or so before being worn or used, to allow the gas to dissipate. This will also help to temper the sharp smell associated with mothballs.

As an alternative to mothballs, some people prefer to use cedar. Cedar blocks, balls, and shavings can all be used in much the same way as mothballs are, except that cedar is not dangerous. For cedar to be most effective, a sealed container is again required, but no airing is necessary before use, and some people actually rather enjoy the distinctive scent of cedar on their clothes, blankets, and other belongings.

Because mothballs are so closely associated with putting things into storage, the term “mothballed” is also used more generally to talk about any sort of defunct project or stored material. For example, a factory may be mothballed when it is no longer in active production, or a project might be mothballed due to lack of interest or funding. In all cases, the assumption is that the project, facility, or object could be restored to full activity at some point in the future.

Today, mothballs are usually made from naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene.
Today, mothballs are usually made from naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@seag47 - In addition to cedar shavings, did you know that you can also buy cedar mothballs? They are perfectly round balls of aromatic red cedar, and they won't stick to your clothing like shavings do.

I use cedar mothballs in my closet, and I never have any problems with moths eating my stuff, even though I have seen them in the house at times. I don't have a lot of extra hanging space in my closet, but if you can fit them in, you can get cedar blocks that have hangers attached. That way you can intersperse them throughout your wardrobe.


My grandparents used to keep mothballs in their closets when I was little. Now, whenever I think of the bedrooms and the sewing room of their house, I smell mothballs.

My grandmother had a lot of old clothes that she wanted to preserve. She had some items from her childhood, and I'm sure she kept a lot of my mother's baby clothes for the memories.

I know that their house was old and probably had several large cracks around windows and doors to allow moths in, so she really needed the mothballs. I just don't how they could stand to sleep in those rooms!


If cedar works just as well, I can't imagine why anyone would use mothballs. Maybe they just don't know they can use cedar.

My friend gave me several vials of lip gloss that came in a small box filled with cedar shavings for Christmas. I actually love the cedar more than the lip gloss!

Cedar can be found in many types of perfume and cologne. I seek out its smell when looking for a new scent.

I am going to try scattering cedar shavings on my high shelves in my closet where I store my off-season clothes. If they stick to my clothes, I'll just dust them off and enjoy the fragrance!


I know a sad but good use for mothballs. My vet told me when my dog died at the clinic that I could put some mothballs in her grave to deter any animals from digging around it. I found the thought disturbing, but I did it to protect the area, and it worked.

Now, whenever I smell mothballs, it takes me back to the day I buried her, and I get very sad. I know that they probably helped save me from more grief, though.


@obsessedwithloopy - I've never heard of using pine or rosemary in a sachet to keep moths away but I'd try anything natural over mothballs.

A friend of mine found rats in her attic and freaked out. After having them removed by a professional, she decided she needed to make her attic uninhabitable for rodents and threw mothballs all over her attic floor. What a mistake!

The mothball smell came through the air vents and her poor family had to suffer through a month of smelling mothballs and having headaches. I didn't want to tell her they are carcinogenic but she found out by looking online anyway.


A sachet made with pine is a good substitute for mothballs. It is natural, and probably healthier. Rosemary can be used too.

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