The Debunker: Do Moths Eat Clothes?

by Ken Jennings

February means Fashion Week in New York, where style trends are born and the newest looks are big business. But what about the rest of us? What about you, a randomly chosen non-supermodel reading a short trivia piece on the Internet? What do you know about fashion? Don't get me wrong, you look great today, but there are a lot of sartorial misconceptions that make the rounds in our culture. We've asked Ken Jennings, who is well-dressed at least by the low standards of Jeopardy! contestants, to go through our closets and throw out all the wrong stuff we thought we knew about our clothes.

Do Moths Eat Clothes?

I've always loved the cartoon trope of articles of clothing turning to tatters before Daffy Duck's very eyes in a flutter of moth wings. (What does Daffy care? He doesn't even wear clothes.) But depending on your definition of "moth," this is a thing that has never happened in real life. Most moths have the perfect alibi: they don't even have mouths!

The Debunker

The semantic issue here boils down to one question: Do you think butterflies and caterpillars are the same thing? If not, then the answer is no, moths won't eat the wool suits in your closet. Only two of the 15,000 species of moths in North America are "clothing moths"—lepidopterans in the family Tineidae—and their adult lives are only a few weeks long. Their atrophied mouths couldn't possible make a dent in your sweaters, so they live off of their fat reserves for less than a month without eating a thing, mate, and then die. Many never even learn to fly

So who eats your clothes? It's their kids, Marty! Something's got to be done about their kids! The common clothes moth will lay hundreds of eggs in its adult life, and the larvae that emerge are ravenously hungry for keratin proteins. They'll use those proteins to grow into tiny caterpillars, and then spin cocoons out of the very same fibers that used to be your cute top! Then they emerge as no-longer-hungry moths, and the cycle begins again

Speaking of misconceptions, the National Pesticide Information Center would like you to think twice before treating your moth problem with mothballs. Mothballs will only work in an airtight container, so just dumping some in a drawer or closet is pointless. And mothballs are nearly 100% composed of toxic stuff that kids and pets should be kept far away from—in some cases paradichlorobenzene, which is believed to cause cancer. Physical measures like brushing, freezing, washing in hot water, or dry-cleaning clothes, followed by vacuuming all nearby surfaces, can be just as effective as chemical warfare. Or just wear polyester! Moths hate pure polyester.

Quick Quiz: The nonprofit known as The Moth is devoted to bringing what ancient art form to a modern audience?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.