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What kills bugs in furniture?

5 Tips for Avoiding Bed Bugs With Secondhand Furniture

Upholstered chair

Remember the good old days when you could visit a few neighborhood garage sales on Saturday morning and score a treasure or two without damaging your budget? Today, the bargains are still out there, but who knows what you might bring home hidden inside that gently used bedside table. From movie theaters to upscale hotels, bed bugs are everywhere. If you believe the news reports — and you probably should — we’re living through a bed bug invasion.

Today’s super bed bugs are blood suckers extraordinaire, too. They’re resistant to many of the eradication methods exterminators rely on, which means their numbers are continuing to grow. So, what’s a garage sale shopper to do? Give up bargain hunting completely? Unthinkable!

Let’s look at five things you can do to leave bed bugs in the dust but still score safe furniture bargains.

  1. Use Common Sense
  2. Avoid Buying Upholstered Furniture
  3. Don’t Believe Everything You Hear
  4. Buy Hard, Uncomplicated Items
  5. Inspect the Items You Buy

5: Use Common Sense

Bed bugs can hide in narrow cracks and seams. They’re tough to spot and even tougher to get rid of once you bring them home. It’s hard enough to check for bed bugs in items that seem relatively clean and safe, so avoid scavenging furniture finds from iffy sources like Dumpsters and alleys. This may sound like a no brainer, but every week you’ll hear some home improvement maven on television bragging about a spectacular home décor item she found abandoned somewhere. For the time being, if an object looks destined for the city dump — leave it alone.

Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite

If you’re planning a trip or a move to a new apartment, check this online site in advance for current information about bed bug activity in hotels and apartments across the country: The Bedbug Registry

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4: Avoid Buying Upholstered Furniture

We know this is bad news, but upholstered furniture can be a paradise for bed bugs. Once inside, they can be impossible to detect. If the person donating or selling the furniture cleaned or vacuumed it without realizing bed bugs were present, the superficial signs and clues of bed bug activity may be absent, too.

Steam cleaning won’t eradicate bed bugs from upholstered furniture. The extreme heat necessary to kill the bugs and their eggs doesn’t penetrate into the padding of upholstered pieces deeply enough to do the job. There are over-the-counter pesticides that claim to kill bed bugs, but even they may not be up to the task of adequately permeating upholstered furniture. Even if you do try chemical warfare, you’ll be left with the problem of dead bugs inside the furniture and a lingering chemical residue you won’t be able to wash out completely. The choices here aren’t encouraging.

If you think you were born under a lucky star and still want to risk buying secondhand upholstered items, check them thoroughly for signs of bed bugs (more on that in the next couple of pages), and look for items people don’t sleep on or near. Bed bugs typically stay close to locations where people sleep. They’re more likely to hang out near a bed or couch used for sleeping or napping than they are to inhabit an upholstered dining chair or bar stool. There are no guarantees, though, so this is one big instance where the buyer (you) should definitely beware.

3: Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

Most secondhand furniture sellers are completely honest, but that doesn’t mean you should believe everything they tell you — especially when they claim their goods are bed bug free. It’s very hard to be sure used furniture items are free of bed bugs. That’s the reality. Even concerted, honest efforts to make sure furnishings are safe can fail because consumers and resellers underestimate how stealthy, adaptable and indestructible these pests really are. Here are a few examples:

  • Heat will kill bed bugs — It has to be a continuous temperature of at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit for a period of three hours or more. This can be a tall order. Small items can be sanitized on hot days inside a sealed, dark plastic bag. (Be sure to test the interior temperature with an instant read thermometer.)
  • Cold will kill bed bugs — As an eradication option, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends exposing bed bugs to cold temperatures of 20 degrees Fahrenheit or less for at least a week. Yikes.
  • You can’t starve them out — The average adult bed bug can survive more than a year (and maybe as long as 18 months) without feeding. It’s possible for a piece of furniture to sit in a storage facility, garage or warehouse for many months and still harbor healthy, hungry bed bugs waiting for their next meal.
  • Bed bugs are masters at concealment — An adult bed bug is less than a quarter of an inch long, and immature specimens (nymphs) are even smaller. They and their eggs can fit into very tiny cracks and joints in furnishings where they are almost undetectable.
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How to Get Rid of Bedbugs

A turned down bed with light linen bedding.

If you have bedbugs (or fear you might), don’t panic. Bedbugs can get the best of us, but they are beatable.

The first step in dealing with a suspected or confirmed bedbug infestation is to hire a reputable pest-control operator and carefully follow their instructions. Alongside that, we’ll show you how to find and identify bedbugs. And we’ll tell you how to clean infested bedding, clothing, and furniture, how to keep the bugs from spreading, and, hopefully, how to avoid them in the future.

What you need

A Miele, lint roller, flashlight, and a trash bag used for removing bedbugs.

Flashlight: A small, bright flashlight will help you spot bugs in their hiding places. We recommend the ThruNite Archer 2A V3.

Lint roller: Use this to pick up any bugs, eggs, or cast skins you find.

Vacuum cleaner: A vacuum cleaner with strong suction and cleaning attachments will help you suck up bedbugs on your mattress and in the carpet. A bagged vacuum—our favorite is the Miele Complete C3 Calima—can make the task easier because any live bugs will stay sealed in the bag. Be sure to buy extra bags and throw them out after each use.

Garbage bags: Gather up bedding, clothing, and other items from an infested area in heavy-duty garbage bags to avoid further spreading bugs throughout your home.

Dryer: Run infested bedding, towels, and clothing through the dryer on the hottest cycle to kill bugs and eggs.

Mattress encasement: Encasing your mattress and box spring in a bedbug-proof mattress cover will trap any bedbugs inside so they can’t spread. Doing this also makes it easier to inspect your bed for bugs in the future, and a cover will protect your mattress from spills and other damage. We always recommend using one. Wirecutter’s pick is the Protect-A-Bed AllerZip Smooth Mattress Encasement, which has super-strong seams and a zipper that won’t easily open.

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How long will this take to clean?

It can take days, weeks, or longer to fully vanquish a bedbug infestation. You will likely need to repeat the steps outlined here until you’ve gotten rid of the bugs entirely.

Confirm you have bedbugs

A person shining a flashlight on the corner of a mattress, looking for bedbugs.

Bite marks, itchiness, or blood stains on sheets aren’t definitive proof of bedbugs. (There’s nothing distinctive-looking about a bedbug bite, and some people don’t react to them or bleed.) And you don’t necessarily have them just because you saw a weird bug (even on your bed!) or spent a night in a sketchy motel, or because your cousin’s boyfriend’s neighbor had bedbugs. Instead, look for the bugs’ characteristic brown-black, dot-like fecal stains (digested blood) on your bedding, mattress, box spring, bed frame, or nearby baseboards. If your mattress isn’t already in an encasement, look carefully along the mattress’s seams and crevices—especially the folds of a pillow top. Bedbugs also leave behind cast skins, which look like empty bedbug shells or fragments. This guide (PDF) has helpful photos of infestation signs.

Vacuum attachments including a brush and a narrow suction tool, used for removing bedbugs.

Alongside any professional treatment, you should clean infested areas and kill any bedbugs you find. Using an upholstery attachment, thoroughly vacuum your mattress and box spring, focusing on seams, crevices, and folds. Vacuum under and around the bed, behind the headboard, and around any other furniture near the bed where bedbugs could harbor. When you’ve finished vacuuming, carefully remove the vacuum bag and immediately seal it in a garbage bag to discard.

If you want to save expensive vacuum bags and you’re using a hose vacuum, the bedbug experts we spoke to suggested a trick: take a knee-high nylon stocking and pull the opening of the stocking over the hose attachment, with the stocking dangling over the end. Secure the stocking tightly with a rubber band, and turn on the vacuum. The suction will pull the stocking into the hose, and trap the bugs, cast skins, and eggs in the fabric (eggs are often sticky, and may require strong suction to remove). Turn off the vacuum and carefully remove the stocking, tie the end, and discard.

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A pile of bed linens in a garbage bag, after the removal of bedbugs.

Remove sheets, pillows, and any clothing, towels, stuffed animals, or textiles that may have been exposed to bedbugs, and carefully seal them up in heavy-duty garbage bags. When you’re ready, remove these items and loosely pack them in the dryer. Run it on the hottest cycle for 30 minutes to kill any bugs or eggs. (If the items aren’t otherwise dirty, you don’t need to wash them first.)

Once you’ve heat-treated, you may want to store some of these items in airtight plastic bins like the Iris Weathertight Totes until the infestation is over, to avoid recontamination.

Decluttering and tidying the affected space will make it easier to treat your infestation. Fully seal trash in heavy-duty garbage bags and remove the bags immediately. Experts don’t advise throwing out mattresses or furniture if you have bedbugs. This, too, can spread bugs around your home or to others. If you do decide to discard your mattress (and check with your PCO first), seal it fully in a tear-proof plastic cover (many cities require this).

Use a mattress encasement

The Protect-A-Bed mattress protector, shown partially unzipped on a mattress.

Once you’ve vacuumed and cleaned your mattress and box spring, it’s a good idea to use a bedbug-proof encasement such as the Protect-A-Bed AllerZip Smooth Mattress Encasement. The encasement will trap any bugs or eggs that could still be hidden on the mattress (or, if it’s torn, inside it).

Leave the cover in place, zipped, and those bugs and eggs will eventually die. Our experts said you should leave it on for a year, but ask your PCO for guidance—don’t unzip it! The encasement also ensures that no new bugs can sneak in. And it will be easier to spot future evidence of bedbugs on the encasement’s smooth, white surface. You may also want to encase your pillows. For that, we recommend the Protect-A-Bed Originals AllerZip Smooth Pillow Protectors.

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Prevent spread

You’ll likely need to continue inspecting, cleaning, vacuuming, and decluttering for days or weeks while the PCO treats your infestation. During this time, avoid spreading bedbugs outside the home by limiting what you bring in and out. Bedbugs don’t live on people, but they could hitch a ride on clothing or bags. And don’t buy any new furniture, mattresses, or bedding until you know the bugs are eradicated.

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