The first step to getting rid of bedbugs is making sure you actually have bedbugs. “I would say at least 50 percent of the samples sent to us turn out not to be bedbugs,” says Gil Bloom, president of Standard Pest Management. But that doesn’t mean those tiny, flat bugs aren’t out there, waiting to hop onto your jacket or your roommate’s backpack and infest your mattress. “It’s unfortunately a fact of life in the city,” admits Bloom, an entomologist with more than 40 years of experience, including a stint as an appointed member of Mayor Bloomberg’s Bed Bug Advisory Board. And the ubiquity of bedbugs is exactly why it’s important to stay calm. “Yes, it’s very rough, but by dealing with it with fact and not fear, people get over it and move on.”
So no, you’re not going to get sick from bedbugs, and you will probably be able to get rid of bedbugs without throwing out all of your belongings. But knowing what you need to get rid of bedbugs and how bedbug treatment works will probably help you feel a little bit calmer. To find out exactly what you need to know about treating and getting rid of bedbugs, we spoke with Bloom and Timothy Wong, the technical director of New York City–based, eco-friendly pest management company MMPC. Below, they recommend the best ways to kill bedbugs and the products you can buy to help stop them from infesting your apartment in the first place — or, at the very least, to catch them early enough so they don’t become a bigger problem.
Best products for preventing bedbugs
“With bedbugs, and any pests, you want to isolate your apartment from the other units as much as possible” to prevent infestations from spreading through the building, explains Bloom. The best way to do that is by going along the edges of your apartment and filling in any gaps and cracks in the walls — like, say, around where a radiator pipe might protrude from. Filling these sorts of gaps is especially important in bedbug-prone areas like bedrooms, according to Bloom, who says the best way to close them up is with some type of sealant. When it comes to sealants, he says to avoid regular caulk because it dries up and cracks, which doesn’t keep anything out. Instead, Bloom suggests this polyurethane-based foam sealant, which comes with an easy-to-use applicator to reach tight spaces.
Unlike silicone or foam, Wong’s preferred sealant from Dap is completely clear, not shiny, and paintable, but still water-resistant. He adds that sealing cracks doesn’t just prevent bedbugs from entering your apartment, but also eliminates places where they can hide and seek safe harbor.
For extra protection, another good product to apply to gaps and cracks is silica gel. “Silica gel is a desiccant,” meaning it’s a drying dust that also works as an insecticide, explains Bloom. Like sealants, he says to apply this in areas where bedbugs are likely to emerge from, such as crevices at the base of closets and along bedroom moldings. After applying this, if any bedbugs come through those areas, Bloom says the odds are good that they’ll cross the silica gel, which will dry them out and kill them. Just note that if using both silica gel and sealant, the silica gel should be applied first, then coated with the sealant.
A common misconception is that bedbugs hide and breed in your mattress. Turns out, box springs are actually the “No. 1 harborage site,” according to Bloom, because their raw wood and padding provide the perfect conditions for the bugs to live and breed. According to our experts, investing in an exterminator-approved box spring encasement like this one from SafeRest — which zips closed and is made from durable polyester coated in a water- and “bedbug-proof” layer — will make it harder for them to multiply.
Once you have your box spring covered (literally), adding another level of protection by covering your mattress is always a good bet. Keeping both the mattress and the box spring covered will help keep an infestation at bay. Plus, a cover also provides a clean, white surface, so if bedbugs do show up, “they’re more easily detected and found,” explains Bloom.
Since bedbugs tend to hide in dark areas, they can be tough to see, which is why Bloom suggests adding an adjustable LED flashlight to your arsenal. He loves the SureFire Sidekick because “it has three settings, fits in your pocket, is USB-charging, and gives you as little or as much power as you need.”
If they’ve managed to breach your defenses, passive monitor traps are an inexpensive way to detect bedbugs early. Bloom promises that the boards “do not attract bedbugs at all,” but will often trap any that are already in your room, alerting you to the problem before it gets completely out of control. He likes these ones from Catchmaster because they contain less glue than similar traps on the market (high-glue content traps, while good at catching other insects, are actually somewhat repellant to bedbugs). Bloom says to “place them in innocuous areas like the base of closets, behind the bed or night tables, and areas around radiators” so they stay out of sight. “You don’t want to go into your bedroom and be surrounded by traps,” he adds.
Best products for getting rid of bedbugs
According to Bloom, “If you do have bedbugs and you’re in a rental unit, the landlord is responsible for the service,” so you’d want to contact yours and about the issue immediately. The next most important thing to do is follow the pest-control contractors’ instructions and prep for their visit. Any infested areas should be thoroughly vacuumed before an exterminator arrives, Bloom says, because bedbugs could otherwise find shelter in lingering dust and debris. He recommends getting a vacuum with two features. The first is a HEPA filter, so that when you vacuum, you’re not blowing allergens around the house. The second is a crack-and-crevice nozzle, so you can get to hard-to-reach places where bedbugs may be hiding. This inexpensive vacuum cleaner fulfills both requirements.
Once you have bed bugs, you’ll need to wash and dry any clothing or bedding that you don’t want to part with. But you want to be sure to wash and dry clothes on a high heat setting, since heat is what will actually kill the bedbugs, not the water itself. Wong adds that, “for removing clothing for laundry, we recommend people use water-soluble bags.” This way, all of your infested things can be sealed off in the bag (which dissolves in the washing machine), minimizing the risk of contaminating your non-infected stuff — or other people’s. As Wong notes, bags like this are “especially important for people using public washer and dryers,” whether at a laundromat or in an apartment building.
Should any bedbugs or their eggs make it onto items you can’t run through the washer and dryer, a garment steamer would be a great way to kill them, Wong says. Adult bedbugs and their eggs will die when they come in contact with something that is 120 degrees Fahrenheit and higher, he explains, and steam is only produced when water temperature reaches 212 Fahrenheit (making it an effective alternative to dry cleaning). If you choose to use a steamer, Bloom says to make sure you treat items over a tub, so if any bugs fall, they’re contained. While Wong says you can find a variety of inexpensive steamers that all work about the same, this Strategist-approved steamer comes recommended by contributor Shannon Adducci. “Unlike wimpy versions that puff more than steam,” she writes that the handheld “X-Cel sports a wide stainless steel head that blasts powerful bursts of hot mist,” which will likely kill bugs on contact.
On small items that can’t be washed or dried, you can even use a hairdryer to kill bedbugs, Bloom says. But for larger belongings, like luggage or certain pieces of furniture, he recommends a heat tent, like the ZappBug Oven, which he calls very “effective.” The ZappBug Oven can also be used for books, files, or paperwork that obviously will not survive a trip through the washer (or a hit with a steamer). The tent will heat up to somewhere between between 120 Fahrenheit and 155 Fahrenheit, and has a digital thermometer to ensure it reaches the desired temperature. And it automatically turns off once the cycle has been completed. Since it is powered by electricity, he does advise that people make sure they have strong wiring in their apartments, so the heat tent “doesn’t keep tripping circuit breakers or fuses.”
For yet another way to kill bed bugs and their eggs on contact, Wong suggests 91 percent isopropyl alcohol, which he says is cheaper than most insecticides. “We recommend our clients use this when treating or cleaning items that might be contaminated with bedbugs,” he told us, cautioning that you would not use this on clothing or bedding, but rather floors or other surfaces that have been contaminated. To ensure you are only applying it where it needs to go, Wong also recommends getting an easy-to-use spray bottle, which he says will also make cleaning a little less backbreaking.
Once laundered, the best type of bags for storing clean clothing or personal items are these XXL Double Zipper Ziplock Storage Bags, according to Wong. While regular trash bags can be used, people often fail to seal them properly, he explains. In addition to their secure zip-closures, these are made with a heavy-duty plastic so they’re less likely to break. They also have convenient built-in handles.