Bed Bug Control Methods and Products
This page discusses some of the products and methods, both chemical and non-chemical, that you'll be using for your bed bug treatment.
Non-Chemical Bed Bug Control Methods and Tools
Most of your bed bug control should be performed non-chemically. Spraying down everything in the room exposes you to pesticides unnecessarily and isn't any more effective than a more balanced approach that combines chemical and non-chemical methods. Here are a few non-chemical bed bug control tools that you should have on hand or have ready access to.
Lots and Lots of Plastic Bags. You should have on hand a ready supply of big plastic bags and twist ties to transport and dispose of items that may be infested. Zipper-type freezer bags are also very handy. Use the freezer type rather than the sandwich type. They're heavier and less likely to tear.
A Good Vacuum Cleaner. A good vacuum cleaner with plenty of suction is a valuable tool for bed bug control. I recommend that you use one with a bag that can be discarded. It's difficult to make sure that bed bugs have been removed from a bagless vacuum cleaner. You will be using the vacuum cleaner to clean the carpeting, mattresses, upholstered furniture, and box springs.
A Carpet Shampooing Machine. If you don't already have one, you'll need to buy, borrow, or rent a carpet shampooer, preferably one with a set of upholstery attachments. You will be using it to loosen and remove bed bug eggs, shed skins, and droppings from the carpeting and furniture. It will also help remove the odor from heavy bed bug infestations.
A Clothes Washer and Dryer. As part of your bed bug treatment, you will have to wash all of the clothing and bedding in the affected room(s). Clothing should be washed in detergent and the hottest water the fabrics can handle, and dried for at least 60 minutes at high heat or 90 minutes at low heat.
It's not a bad idea to run an empty load in your washing machine after washing clothing known or suspected of being infested with bed bugs. Although it's unlikely that bed bugs will survive a washing and infest the washer, it's not impossible.
Clothes that can be dry-cleaned should be packed in two sealed plastic bags (one sealed inside the other) and taken to the dry cleaner. Bring them sealed tightly in plastic garbage bags or big zipper-type bags and tell the dry cleaner that they may be infested so they can be kept separate from the other clothing in the store. You may have to call around to find a dry cleaner willing to clean them for you, but you really don't want to be spreading the problem around. Or at least I hope you don't.
Clothing and other items that you don't need should be discarded.
A Deep Freezer. Items like books, shoes, children's plush toys, and other items that can't be treated any other way can usually treated by deep freezing. In order to be effective, the temperature must be no higher than 0° F (-18° C), and the items should be kept at that temperature for at least five days. If the deep freeze is interrupted (for example, by opening the freezer for more than a few seconds), start over again.
Obviously, don't try to freeze anything containing liquid (it will burst) or anything else that can be damaged by cold. Most electronic equipment can handle 0° F without damage if enclosed in a freezer bag to prevent condensation, but check with the device manufacturer to be sure.
A Bed Bug Steamer. One of the best ways to reduce pesticide use is to use a bed bug steamer to kill as many bed bugs as possible in mattresses, box springs, furniture, and other accessible locations. The better ones can penetrate pretty deeply into a box spring or mattress. The steam must directly contact the bed bugs to kill them. (Basically, it cooks the bed bugs.)
Mattress Encasements. We'll talk more about these in the page about treating the beds. For now, I'll just say that bedbug-resistant mattress encasements are an absolute must. You'll need to install them on all of the beds and box springs in the infested room(s), and I highly recommended that you install them on all the beds in the house.
Chemical Bed Bug Control Methods and Tools
Except when using whole-house heat treatment, it's almost impossible to successfully treat a home for bed bugs without using some insecticide. Depending on your specific situation, you may need any or all of the following types of pesticides and application equipment.
Liquid Insecticides. Liquid insecticides are the easiest products to use to treat structural cracks and crevices, mattresses, the outside of box springs, and furniture. Obviously, you'll need to use products that are labeled for bed bug control and are labeled for the specific surfaces being treated. For example, if you're using the product to treat a mattress, then it must be labeled for mattresses.
Most over-the-counter liquid insecticides are pre-diluted, but some are concentrates that must be mixed with the proper carrier (usually water) at the proper ratio to get the correct percentage of active ingredient in the final spray. Follow the label instructions to the letter when mixing or diluting insecticides. Too weak a mix will be ineffective and may encourage pesticide resistance. Too strong a mix may be repellent to bed bugs and actually reduce effectiveness.
One of the better liquid insecticides for bed bug control is Harris Bed Bug Killer. The active ingredient is deltamethrin (a synthetic pyrethroid). If you prefer all-natural products, please continue on to the next section of this page.
Liquid Insecticide Sprayer. If you use liquid insecticides, then you will need an insecticide sprayer. It must be capable of applying the insecticide as both a pin-stream that can be applied directly into cracks and crevices, and as a cone- or fan-shaped spray to cover larger surfaces.
Some liquid insecticide products come with trigger-type sprayers, but they're slower to use and tend to be leaky. Pump-type compressed-air sprayers are much easier to use, get the job done more quickly, and are not very expensive.
Insect Growth Regulators, or IGRs, are insecticides that don't actually kill insects. Instead, they disrupt a juvenile insect's life cycle to prevent it from reaching adulthood. This prevents them from ever reproducing.
IGRs are often called "juvenoids," as compared to insecticides that kill exposed insect stages (nymphs and adults in the case of bed bugs), which are called "adulticides." The jury's still out on how effective they are for bed bug control. Some professionals swear by them, but others think they're useless.
The best-available research shows very limited benefit from using currently-available IGRs against bed bugs. Personally, I say don't waste your money. Others will disagree.
Dust Insecticides. Insecticide dusts for bed bugs are formulated as very fine powders that are applied with insecticide dusters. They're useful for treating inside wall voids and box springs, and can also be used to treat structural cracks and crevices (although liquid insecticides are easier to use for that purpose). There are also aerosol dusts like Tri-Die that don't need a duster to be applied.
Most dust insecticides have a matrix that looks smooth and powdery to the naked eye, but looks like broken glass under a microscope. The sharp edges injure the waxy coating of the insect's body and cover their bodies with cuts. This causes the insect to lose body fluids and dehydrate, as well as making it more susceptible to toxicants and germs.
Some insecticide dusts also contain a toxicant that may be either synthetic or naturally-derived. If you prefer a dust with no toxicant at all, then your best choice is a diatomaceous earth dust insecticide. This isn't the same stuff that's used in swimming pool filters. It's specially pulverized for use as an insecticide.
If you are going to be working with insecticide dusts, you'll need to protect yourself using a pesticide respirator. Even dusts with no toxicant are highly irritating to the lungs and respiratory passages.
Aerosol Insecticides. Pressurized aerosol insecticides come in very handy for treating mattresses, wall voids, and structural cracks and crevices (assuming, of course, that they are labeled for those uses). Most aerosols are actually liquid insecticides under pressure.
PT Phantom II Pressurized Insecticide is a very effective aerosol that is labeled for bed bugs. Read the label very carefully, however, because it does have some restrictions. For example, it can only be applied to the seams and tufts of mattresses. Remember: The label is the law.
There are also aerosol dust insecticides that are very handy for places like wall voids. They're used like any other dusts, except that you don't need a bulb duster to apply them. Tri-Die is one of the best aerosol dusts and is popular with professional exterminators. It's labeled for bed bugs and does a great job inside box springs.
Residual versus Contact Insecticides for Bed Bug Control
Residual insecticides, as their name implies, leave a residue on treated surfaces and retain their insecticidal effectiveness for some time, usually ranging from a few weeks to a few months. The reason for a residual insecticide's continuing effectiveness usually is a combination of the active ingredient's inherent stability, which causes it to break down more slowly; and its formulation, which slows its degradation and releases the active ingredient over time. For example, microencapsulated insecticides are slow-released through the microcapsules, and dust insecticides are bound up into the matrix.
Contact insecticides, on the other hand, kill bugs that come in contact with the products when they are applied, but have no residual effectiveness. Most contact insecticides are botanicals like pyrethrum, sometimes synergized by other chemicals like piperonyl butoxide to increase their toxicity to insects. They are intended to break down very rapidly and are preferred by many who don't want any pesticide residues after treatment.
There are three problems with using contact insecticides for bed bug control. One is that in real-world situations, it's rather unlikely that you will contact every bed bug, especially if the infestation is severe. Bed bugs in a mattress, for example, may just travel deeper into the mattress and emerge later when the pesticide residue is no longer toxic to them. The second problem is eggs that hatch after the initial treatment. If there is no residue, then they will not be exposed to any insecticide. The third problem is that new bed bugs introduced into a location after the treatment will not be affected by prior applications of contact insecticides.
Some will argue that bed bugs don't absorb residual insecticides very well anyway, and there's a lot of truth to that argument. But the earliest stages of bed bugs are more susceptible to residual insecticides than the later stages; so for control or recently-hatched bed bugs, there's a good argument to be made for using residual products for that reason alone.
If you choose to use contact, non-residual insecticides, you're making a choice to sacrifice residual effectiveness. This means two things.
Firstly, you will have to be extremely thorough in your application. Your goal will be to contact every single living bed bug in the house. Every bug that you do not directly contact will survive.
Secondly, unless your infestation was very, very new, you probably will have to re-treat, even if you don't see any more bed bugs after your first treatment. This is to kill the bed bugs that were still eggs during your first treatment. Because of the life cycle of bed bugs, I suggest at least one retreatment seven to ten days after the initial treatment, followed by a period of intense surveillance. If you still see bed bugs after the second treatment, either repeat it again, consider switching to a residual insecticide, or consider calling a professional PCO.
Natural Insecticides for Bed Bug Control
In between "chemical" and "non-chemical" bed bug control, we find products that are in fact insecticides, but which are naturally-derived and have extremely low toxicity. These products are excellent choices for people who want an all-natural, "organic" approach to bed bug control.
One natural product that has received high praise for its effectiveness against bed bugs is Bed Bug Patrol, whose manufacturer states that it is made of "All-Natural Plant Extracts of Euginia Carophylla, Mentha Piperita, and Sodium Lauryl Sulphate from Coconut Extract."
Another natural bed bug control product (and the one that I prefer myself) is EcoRaider Bed Bug Killer. The reason I like this one is that it has a 14-day residual. That means that bed bugs who manage to survive your initial attack by hiding from the spray will die when they walk across it later, when they think you're not looking. If you want an all-natural liquid insecticide for bed bugs, this is the one I recommend.