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What Do Moth Balls Smell Like

The distinctive scent of mothballs is instantly recognizable to many people, where the chemical odor repels moths and insects. Also, you may use the term mothball breath if you’ve ever smelled someone with bad breath. Mothballs are toxic and have potential health hazards that become evident through their smell. Oral hygiene was never as risky.  

Traditional mothballs are small pesticide balls or blocks containing either naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene as active ingredients. These chemicals emit gas vapors that are toxic to moths but also create a potent odor. The naphthalene gives mothballs their classic scent, and the chemical comes from coal tar or petroleum sources from former manufactured gas plants. Paradichlorobenzene mothballs smell sharper and more musty. 

Even in small amounts, exposure to mothball smells can cause headaches, breathing difficulty, nausea, fatigue, and eye irritation. Prolonged inhalation of the vapors may pose even greater health risks. In our guide, you can learn more about how mothball naphthalene can cause headaches and nausea. By the end, you’ll better understand what mothballs smell like and the problems mothballs can cause. (Learn How Long Does It Take For Quikrete To Dry)

Moth Balls Smell Like

What Are Mothballs and How Do They Work?

Mothballs are a white solid pesticide product containing chemicals meant to kill and repel moths and larvae from eating fabrics. Traditional mothballs exist as small balls or blocks that slowly release a pungent smell and gas vapor. The odor of mothballs is a smell that moths instinctively avoid.

The fumes from chemicals in mothballs can also be toxic to moths and insects over time, but the immediate deterrent is the strong odor. The molecules from the chemicals spread through the air and absorb into materials, creating the lingering mothball smell.

While mothballs drive away moths, the gas vapors and smell can also potentially impact human health with excessive exposure. Understanding what causes the signature mothball scent helps assess possible risks.

Why Does Mothball Smell Linger So Long?

Mothball odor is very stubborn and persistent because the chemical vapors take a long time to dissipate fully. The solid mothball slowly sublimates, turning from a solid into a spreading gas. This gradual vapor release allows the smell to continue for months or longer, even after mothballs are removed.

In closed spaces like boxes and trunks, the concentration of chemicals can build up. When opened, they release the trapped mothball smell. The vapor molecules also absorb into fabrics and other materials, re-releasing the odor later. Proper airflow is needed to flush the vapors out over time fully.

The Distinct Smell of Naphthalene 

Most traditional mothballs use naphthalene as the active pesticide ingredient. Naphthalene mothballs emit an odor that smells like mothballs – a strong chemical or tar-like scent. The naphthalene fumes create a gas vapor that repels moths and other insects yet lingers in the indoor air and is highly flammable so that they could cause a fire.

Naphthalene has a very low odor threshold in humans, meaning it doesn’t take much exposure to notice the smell. Even small amounts of naphthalene or mothball fumes can create a strong mothball odor that some people find unpleasant and irritating. The chemical odor is described as sharp, pungent, or smoky.

Naphthalene may also be compared to the medicinal smell of camphor. Mothballs may also vaguely smell like chemicals in crude oil or coal production. That’s because naphthalene compounds may also be found in coal tar wastes or petroleum distillates like other types of volatile organic compound (VOC). (Read Why Does Mulch Smell Like Poop)

The Scent of Paradichlorobenzene

Some modern mothballs use paradichlorobenzene rather than naphthalene as the active ingredient. This chemical also emits a fume vapor to kill and repel insects. Paradichlorobenzene mothballs create a smell commonly described as aromatic, pungent, or musty. The chemical odor is considered stronger and more unpleasant than naphthalene mothball smell. 

Paradichlorobenzene is sometimes used in air fresheners or deodorizer products, often with a masking scent added. By itself, the basic Paradichlorobenzene odor has been compared to strong chemical cleaners. It lacks the tarry, smoky aroma of naphthalene.

So paradichlorobenzene mothballs smell musty and sharply chemical but in a different way than the classic mothball smell from naphthalene products. The vapors are still potent and may be overpowering in closed spaces like closets and basements.

Get Rid of the Lingering Mothball Smell

Potential Health Effects of Mothball Smells

The acrid odor from naphthalene, paradichlorobenzene, and other mothball ingredients serves a purpose to repel pests and curious rodent or mouse. However, there are potential risks to human health when fumes reach a certain number of parts per billion. Here is a list of common cause mothball containers may cause when open and sitting in your home.

  • Headache, nausea, fatigue, and dizziness from inhaling the vapors
  • Lung irritation or breathing difficulty with prolonged exposure 
  • Anemia, liver, and kidney damage from high concentrations of this moth repellant 
  • Increased cancer risk from naphthalene, as it is a possible carcinogen with long-term exposure

The mothball odor is a warning sign that the air contains mothball vapors. While occasional brief exposure to the smell may not be harmful, breathing high concentrations of the chemical fumes day after day can even cause health issues. 

Pregnant women, children, pets, and people with respiratory issues are most vulnerable to mothball vapors. But anybody exposed to mothball odor indoor for extended periods should take precautions and consider removing the product. Regarding halitosis (bad breath), bacteria thrive on food particles and sloughed mouth cells. Here, these sulfur compounds (VSCs) can be smelt like mothballs. (Learn How To Get Rid Of Mothball Smell)

Alternatives Without the Smell of Mothballs

The most direct way to avoid exposure is not using traditional mothballs containing naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene. There are several odor-free options to repel moths and pests instead:

  1. Cedar chips, blocks, or shavings: The strong cedar scent naturally repels moths without chemical smells. Use cedar in storage containers or closets.
  2. Dried lavender, mint, and rosemary: Make small sachets filled with these herbs to place near clothing.
  3. Inert minerals: Diatomaceous earth, volcanic rock dust, or zeolites can be dusted around fabrics.
  4. Low-odor moth traps: Pheromone or sticky traps draw in moths without strong vapors.
  5. Freezing temperatures: Storing susceptible items in cold areas kills eggs and larvae. 
  6. Cleaning and air circulation: Keeping spaces clean and dry while allowing airflow decreases moth appeal.

Checking for any signs of current moth infestations and then using preventive, low-odor options helps avoid the need for pungent mothballs indoors. Many claim that when they are exposed to air, they help prevent mold.

However, your house smells like old garment bags, and anyone in the know would advise against using a moth repellent to get rid of a mold patch you’re concerned with.  Talk to a pest control professional for the best repellent solutions in your specific situation.

Is It Safe to Breathe and Smell Mothballs?

Exposure to mothball smell, even in small amounts, indicates you are inhaling low levels of pesticide vapors. Frequent or extended exposure to these chemical fumes may cause severe effects in humans and pets:

  • Headaches, dizziness, and nausea
  • Respiratory irritation and breathing difficulty
  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Liver, kidney, or blood cell damage (hemolytic anemia) in severe cases
  • Children and pets can mistake mothballs for food

Certain groups like children, pregnant women, and those with allergies or respiratory issues may be especially vulnerable. But the mothball smell contains toxic chemicals that no one on a regular basis should deeply inhale.

Mothball odors on Closets

How Can I Get Rid of the Lingering Mothball Smell?

If you want to get rid of the mothball odors, here are tips to help remove the mothballs smell:

  • Discard any remaining mothballs carefully.
  • Increase airflow and ventilation.
  • Place items outside or in direct sunlight.
  • Air out boxes and storage containers thoroughly before re-sealing.
  • Use baking soda or activated charcoal to help absorb odors over time.
  • Wash clothes and fabrics with detergent, vinegar, and borax.
  • Be patient – the mothball smell can take weeks or months to disappear entirely.

Completely eliminating persistent mothball odors requires diluting the vapor concentrations. With consistent air circulation and properly discarding mothballs, the smell will eventually fade.


The distinctive mothball smell comes from pesticide chemicals like naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene that produce fumes to repel moths. But these vapors can also be hazardous to us. Safer, odor-free options exist.

If exposed to mothball smells, take action to remove them from living areas and improve ventilation to protect health. Overall, 1,4-dichlorobenzene is a common household smell mothballs have, and it is one you can do without. (Read What Does Pine Tar Smell Like)

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do mothballs smell so bad?

The potent smell comes from chemicals meant to deter moths. But these same vapors can be irritating and toxic to humans to inhale regularly.

How long does mothball smell last in clothes or closets?

The lingering odor can take weeks or months to dissipate. It needs lots of air circulation to dissipate completely, especially if you put mothballs between clothes.

Will mothballs smell if closed in a container?

Chemicals slowly turn to vapor even in enclosed spaces, and the smell is releases when exposed to the air.

What Do Moth Balls Smell Like