How To Get Rid Of Bedbugs: What Works + What Doesn't

If you do encounter the creepy crawlies, keep calm. We put nontoxic methods to the test.

April 8, 2016
legs in bed

Bedbugs are tiny parasitic insects that live in your mattress and feast on you while you sleep. And if that’s not enough to set your skin crawling, check out these fun facts, courtesy of the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program:

1. Bedbugs poop “blood spots.” They look like teeny-tiny dots made with a fine-tipped marker, and you’ll see a lot of them near bedbugs’ feeding grounds and hiding places.


2. You can find bedbugs in the “cleanest of clean” rooms. Gulp.

3. Adult bedbugs can survive for more than a year without eating if the room’s temperature isn’t too warm. 

Related: 7 Easy Ways To Make Life In The Bedroom Healthy + All Natural

Ready to go inspect your bedroom with a magnifying glass? To detect an infestation, carefully examine the edges of your mattress, box spring, and bedframe. Look for dark red or brown spots (bedbug poop) and the insects themselves hiding in tiny crevices. Keep in mind that despite their name, bedbugs can be found just about anywhere in the house—baseboards, behind picture frames, in other furniture—anywhere they’ll have access to your flesh while you’re staying relatively still. But how did they get there? It’s hard to say, but common sources might be your luggage, if you’ve traveled recently, or that great piece of vintage furniture you picked up at a yard sale. 

Related: Toxic Yard Sale Items That Aren't Worth The Bargain

If you do encounter the creepy crawlies, keep calm and study up on these nontoxic bedbug-eradicating methods. Bedbugs are increasingly resistant to many common insecticides, so people have started turning to natural methods. Here, we examine what actually works and what totally doesn’t. 

YUP: Set Traps

Once you’ve removed as many bedbugs from your mattress as possible, you’ll want to get some special traps. Interceptors, as they’re called, have been shown to be effective at keeping bugs from re-infiltrating cleaned items. They look like plastic cat bowels with a moat around the outside, and they’re designed to fit under your bedposts to trap the invading parasites. The first step is to move your bed away from the wall and other furniture. Bedbugs can’t fly, so now they’ve only got one route to your mattress: by climbing up the bedposts from the floor. Then slide an interceptor under each bedpost to stymie the bedbugs’ progress and trap them in the inescapable moat.  


NOPE: Ultrasonic Devices 

Ultrasonic devices emit sound at a frequency that’s too high for human ears to detect. The sound is meant to interfere with bedbugs’ communication and drive them out of your home. However, in lab studies ultrasonic devices had absolutely no effect on bedbugs’ behavior, leaving scientists to conclude they simply don’t work.

Related: What Do Stink Bugs Eat?

MOSTLY YUP: Vacuum + Bag The Mattress

If you have or suspect you have bedbugs, act early, beginning in the bedroom. If you move to another room to sleep, the bedbugs will just follow you there (you’re their food source, after all). Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Extension put together a comprehensive bedbug action plan that’s a good place to get started. Your first line of defense is busting out the vacuum cleaner—it sucks up those tiny parasites and puts them where they’ll never see the light of day again. But as you likely know, bedbugs bury deep inside your mattress, so your vacuum isn’t going to get them all. That’s why it’s absolutely essential to procure bedbug-proof cases for your mattress, box spring, and pillows (you can order online or find them at stores like Target). The fabric is woven tightly to prevent bedbugs from getting in or out, and they can’t bite you through the fabric, either. 

NOPE: Rubbing Alcohol

You might read on DIY sites that spraying rubbing alcohol on places where bedbugs hide is an effective way to take them out, but the science begs to differ. Researchers reported at an entomology conference a few years back that in one trial rubbing alcohol only killed about half of bedbugs after four days.


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YUP: Steam ’Em

Using steam to kill bedbugs is one of the most effective nontoxic methods, especially when combined with other preventative measures like those outlined above, because it eradicates eggs that your vacuum can’t reach. The downside is that you’ll probably need to hire a professional to do the job with a heavy-duty steamer. Steam cleaners designed for carpet and clothes like the ones you may already own (or can rent at the grocery store) don’t get hot enough to deliver a lethal blow. Do an online search, though, to see if there are any commercial steamers available for renting in your area.

NOPE: Diatomaceous Earth

Diatomaceous earth (DE), a powdery mined mineral made up of fossilized algae, is one of the more popular home solutions to bedbugs. It’s very abrasive to small insects, and spreading it about pest-infested homes is basically meant to chafe insects to death by causing them to lose water. There are many reports that DE is successful against bedbugs, especially when combined with other methods, but in a recent field study DE failed to work at all. This may have something to do with the frequency at which bedbugs molt, thus replacing their scratched-up outer shells with new ones, as well as their ability to live with very little water.

YUP: Essential Oil-Based Sprays

Obviously, synthetic insecticides are not exactly good for you, especially if you’re using them in your bedroom. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on whether more natural pesticides that use essential oils as their active ingredients are worth your time and money. In laboratory trials, bedbug mortality rates varied by brand (most contain essential oils like peppermint, cedar, and clove, as well as sodium lauryl sulfate), but none could beat synthetic varieties. One trial halfheartedly concluded that two brands out of the eleven tested were “potentially useful” for controlling bedbugs. A separate study, on the other hand, found that one brand—EcoRaider—did work, as well as synthetic insecticides, but cautioned that insecticides in general are not very effective. However, the authors note that people tend to over-apply insecticides, in which case proven essential oil-based products are the better choice.