How to Kill Bed Bugs in Clothes: A Complete Guide to a Bed Bug Free Closet

If you’re wondering where bed bugs live, the clue is in the name. These parasitic blood feeders get their name from their habit of staying close to where a human spends the night, which for most of us is in bed.

Bed bugs are generally fairly lazy, and so they’ll stay close to a food source once they find it. This is why the bed is the most common place to find bed bugs.

That doesn’t mean it’s the only place to find them, though. 

Bed bugs like to stay hidden, especially during the day. Their bodies are flattened, allowing them to squeeze into tiny little cracks and crevices to avoid detection.

These cracks and crevices can be the edge of a mattress, a gap in the wood of the headboard or the seams of a piece of clothing. 

That’s what makes bed bugs so tough to treat; there are so many places in the average house for them to hide. And thanks to their staggering reproductive rate, missing even one bed bug can render the whole treatment ineffective.

So if you have bed bugs, you need to think about how to treat your clothes as well as your furniture. Fortunately, we’re here for you with the definitive guide to getting bed bugs out of your clothes – and keeping them out.

Do bed bugs live in clothes?

The first question, of course, is do bed bugs even live in clothes? Yup, they can. It might not be their preferred habitat, since they generally prefer to snuggle up with you in bed.

But if you have a bed bug infestation heavy enough that the bed has started to become crowded, bed bugs will begin to branch out into other areas of the house.

Clothes hanging in the closet provide bed bugs with everything they need to live a happy life: a warm, dark place to hide, a rough surface on which to stick their eggs, and ready access to human blood.

How do bed bugs get on clothes? 

The world is a cruel place, but perhaps not as cruel as it could be. We can all be thankful that bed bugs can’t fly, or else we would probably have had to find a new planet to live on by now. They can’t jump either. If a bed bug wants to get anywhere, it’s going to have to walk.

Like most insects, bed bugs aren’t as constrained by gravity as us lumbering humans. They can walk up walls or across ceilings as easily as they do on the floor.

The most common way for bed bugs to get inside clothes is for them to hide in clothes that have been left on the floor or on the bed.

Strangely enough, although bed bugs depend on us for their food source, they don’t like to live on us or on clothes that we are wearing. But they will happily hide in clothes in a laundry hamper or on the floor, and possibly even hanging in the closet.

Can bed bugs bite through clothes?

Although they are most definitely visible to the naked eye, bed bugs are small, and their mouths are even smaller.

do i have bed bug bites

Their mouthparts are shaped like a hypodermic needle, perfectly adapted to piercing skin and finding the blood vessels just beneath. But they struggle to pierce even regular fabric such as cotton, making it difficult for bed bugs to bite through clothes.

However, if you’re thinking to avoid being bitten by bed bugs through the liberal use of pajamas, think again.

Bed bugs are highly mobile, and will crawl all over you looking for exposed skin. If they can’t find any, they are not above climbing inside your clothes and biting you there.

Many people report bites on areas of the body that were fully clothed overnight. Somehow, bed bugs always find a way.

How to kill bed bugs in clothes?

Okay, you know enough about bed bugs in clothes now and all you want to do is get to killing the bloodsucking pests.

Here’s the step by step guide on how to get rid of bed bugs in clothes…

Wash And Dry Bed Bugs to Death

For most articles of clothing, the best and easiest way to kill bed bugs in clothes is to simply wash and dry them.

But not any wash setting will do. Nope, you’ll want to wash the clothes in the hottest water that they can stand. And dry everything.

Try not to overfill your dryer; if you only dry half a load at a time, the heat inside the dryer will be higher, and the chances of killing any bed bugs inside are greater.

Leave the clothes in the dryer for 90 minutes to ensure you kill the bugs. In general, get your clothes as hot as you can for as long as you can without damaging them.

Intense heat kills not only adult bed bugs, but also the eggs, which is vital if you want to completely eliminate these awful pests.

Store Well to Keep Bed Bugs Out of Clothes

Once you’ve washed and dried your clothes, it’s essential to store them properly to make sure that they don’t get reinfested.

A good way to do this is to seal them inside airtight storage bags or containers. Giant Ziploc bags designed for clothes can work. These close with an airtight seal the bugs can’t get past and they’re clear so that you can see what’s inside. You’ll be glad for that feature when you’re looking for a specific piece of clothing.

Another even better, more convenient option is to opt for airtight storage bins. Look for ones with built-in with gaskets as they’ll give the containers an air-tight seal that bed bugs won’t be able to maneuver into.

Our recommendation for the best option are these very large, 20-quart Sterilite bins. They’re clear, they’re airtight and they’re easy to open and close, which you’ll appreciate when you’re strapped for time and looking for that one particular shirt.

Whatever storage option you decide to go with – you’ll want to set up a simple storage system by taking a marker pen and writing CLEAN on the outside of the bag or bin.

That way you know the clothes inside are bed bug-free and ready-to-wear. You could also create another bag for dirty clothes, and put your clothes in there once they’ve been worn and are waiting to be washed. Yes, it’s a hassle. But living a bed bug-free life is worth the effort.

For clothes you don’t regularly wear, vacuum sealed storage bags are a great option. Wash and dry everything, and then store them in these bags.

Since the bags are airtight, no bed bugs will be able to get inside. Even if they did, they would quickly suffocate. Even bed bugs need air.

Steam Bed Bugs to Death

What if you have clothes you can’t wash? Don’t panic just yet; you’re not out of options.

Since heat kills bed bugs, a great way to heat your clothes is using steam. If you’re worried about bed bugs, a good-quality steamer can quickly pay for itself.

Check the specifications on any steamer before you buy it and make sure that it gets hot enough to kill bedbugs, and especially their eggs. Generally, the more high-end and professional the steamer is, the greater the temperatures it’s capable of reaching.

While a garment steamer could fit the bill, it might be worth investing in something a little more versatile, like the McCulloch Heavy-Duty Steam Cleaner.

steamer for bed bugs

This beast of a steamer heats water to over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more than enough to wipe out entire generations of bed bugs.

Plus, a good steamer like this can treat not only your clothes, but also your furniture, mattress, and carpet so it could be your best weapon in the fight against bedbugs.

Does dry cleaning kill bed bugs?

Okay, the above ways to kill bed bugs will take care of most of your clothes but what about the more delicate items? Will dry cleaning wipe out bed bugs in your more finicky clothes?

It can. If you have items of clothing that won’t stand up to a regular wash and you want to make sure that they’re free of bed bugs, taking them to the dry cleaners can be an option.

What’s most important to remember is that one of the best ways to kill bed bugs is with heat. Temperatures above 110°F will kill bed bugs slowly. The hotter the temperature, the quicker the kill.

Once you start getting up to 120°F or above, bed bugs begin to die almost immediately.

So a good approach is to ask the dry cleaner what exactly the process is. If they’re going to press your clothes with an industrial press, there’s a good chance that the heat of the press will kill any bed bugs that might be hiding inside.

Be warned, however, that dry cleaners are terrified of getting a bed bug infestation, for obvious reasons. If they know that you have bed bugs in your clothes, or even suspect that you do, they may refuse to take them at all.

How do I kill bed bugs in other apparel?

The above is all fine and dandy for clothes but what about apparel and accessories that can’t really be washed? Once again, heat is your friend.

Since the dramatic return of bed bugs a decade or two ago, various new technologies have been developed to combat this red menace. One of the most intriguing is the use of heat chambers.

These function by creating a closed-off area that you can then heat with the attached heater. By raising the temperature inside the chamber to over 122°F, you’ll instantly kill the bugs and their eggs, even when they’re hidden inside your clothes.

ZappBug makes a range of heat chambers that vary in size from a travel version that can treat suitcases up to a large tent that can handle entire sofas and other furniture.

To use these heat chambers correctly, you need to take your time and make sure that every part of the chamber gets above the killing temperature. They can be a very effective way to treat your clothes and other items that can’t just be put inside a dryer.

Does cold kill bed bugs in clothes?

With all this talk of heat, one method of killing bed bugs that sometimes gets neglected is freezing them. Like all animals, bed bugs can only live within a certain temperature range. Just as heat can kill them, so can intense cold.

That means intense. Bed bugs can stay active down to 46°F, and they can go dormant and survive even below that. With the ability to lower the freezing point of their bodily fluids, bed bugs can take a cold snap.

Studies have even been able to revive bed bugs that were subjected to temperatures of -13°F for short spells. However, longer exposure at a temperature of 0°F is enough to kill them if it can be maintained for four days or more.

If you have clothes that you can do without for a while, you could consider placing them in a freezer. Not all home freezers will get this cold, but a good quality chest freezer should be able to.

If you live in a colder climate, you may be tempted to let nature do the bug killing for you. And there are plenty of places around the world where winter temperatures most definitely get cold enough to kill bedbugs ( I’m looking at you, Canada).

But the trouble with this method is that weather can be fickle. It changes from day-to-day, and even from one area to another.

There are so many variables that go into outdoor temperature that it’s not advisable to trust it to kill bed bugs, even when it feels more than cold enough for the job.

It’s better to place your clothes in a controlled environment like a freezer where you can make sure that the temperature is consistent and accurate.

It’s no fun finding bed bugs in your clothes. Even worse if you find they wear them better than you do.

And once they’re in there, getting bed bugs out of their clothes will require more than a Luther Vandross mix. But with organization, diligence, and consistency, you can make sure that your clothes are free of these bloodsucking beasts. Happy hunting.

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