Bad news: Bed bugs like the smell of your dirty laundry

In the pantheon of global superpowers, we rarely stop to consider the humble bed bug. Perhaps it’s because we would rather pretend they don’t exist—or because they so often slip into our lives unseen—but either way, we would do well to recognize Cimex lectularius for the impressive organism it is. Maybe then we'd stand a chance at defeating them.

Bed bugs are upsetting for a multitude of reasons. For one, they are tiny, flightless creatures that live only in crevices and holes, but that have somehow managed to spread across almost the entire planet. For another, well...we’ll get there. Let’s start with the colonization.

No one really knows how bed bugs travel. Much like the Black Death, they seem to crop up everywhere without any obvious signs of direct transmission. But this is not the Middle Ages. We are living in a post-germ theory world. So a group of intrepid entomologists at the University of Sheffield embarked on a quest to discover where these critters are hiding in an effort to stop them from infiltrating your mattress. They published their findings in Scientific Reports this week.

Related: Bugs love these foods

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Foods That Attract Bugs
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Foods That Attract Bugs

Keep ants, flies and other unwanted pests away from your outdoor soiree by avoiding or carefully packing these much "bee"-loved picnic foods.

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Fruit Salad

Insects are attracted to sweet tastes and smells, so any cut fruit or ripe fruit will attract them. Overly ripe fruit undergoes mild fermentation, another thing bugs go crazy over.

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Burgers, Hot Dogs and other Meats

Some insects, like wasps, have an appetite for meat and will bombard your hamburgers and hot dogs.

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Vegetables

Many insects enjoy munching on vegetables, but select items like garlic and onions are known to be natural bug repellants for some species.

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Fish

Insects quickly pick up on strong smells like pungent fish dishes.

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Soda, Juice and Other Sugary Beverages

Sweet drinks have the sugar factor that insects seek. A common problem picnic-goers experience is discovering bugs inside their soda cans or bottles. Prevent this unwanted surprise by covering opened cans with plastic wrap or foil and sipping with straws.

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Pickled Vegetables

Fermented foods like pickled vegetables make excellent bug bait.

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Beer, Wine and Hard Alcohol

Alcohol contains sugar which insects also enjoy.

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Candy and Dessert

Besides the risk of melting or going bad under the sun, sweet candy and desserts like cakes, pies and pudding are big targets for insect invasions.

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Garbage

Your food scraps will attract pests, so keep it away from your picnic location and properly dispose of it afterward.

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As is the case with most journeys, their quest began with clean clothes and ended with dirty ones. See, these scientists had a theory: it’s not just humans that bed bugs are attracted to, it’s the smell of a human. Bed bugs, along with mosquitoes and ticks and plenty of other blood-sucking creatures, find animals to feed on by detecting the carbon dioxide they exhale. Researchers who study these bugs can actually collect wild specimens by leaving a chunk of dry ice (which is just frozen carbon dioxide) out in the woods for an hour or two. When they return, it’s surrounded by vampiric critters. The gas indicates that some living, breathing thing is around packing a fresh supply of blood.

This is why C. lectularius colonizes beds: it’s not that the bed itself is so great, but a place where people reliable lie down for hours at a time is the bed bug equivalent of a nightly all-you-can-eat buffet. The carbon dioxide carried out with every snore sends them into a feeding frenzy, but it seems they've learned to follow other human smells as well.

Related: Common laundry mistakes to avoid

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Laundry mistakes you're making right now
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Laundry mistakes you're making right now
First things first: remove all pins, unbutton buttons, empty pockets, uncuff socks, zip zippers. If there are problem areas that you didn't get to immediately, a stain stick applied before a wash cycle can come in handy on tough spots. If your brood's gear is particularly grimy, you might consider soaking clothes overnight in a hot tub of water to help loosen dirt.
The practice of separating dark-colored clothing from lighter-colored garments probably isn't news to anyone, except maybe your teenager. In order to keep those brights from looking dull and blacks from fading, wash colored apparel inside out. Moms, this is especially true of those expensive jeans.
While this practice was popular in the past, it's not as widely considered anymore. Martha Stewart, however, still recommends it for getting those white fabrics brighter and cleaner in a way that ordinary bleach isn't capable of. Stewart recommend Mrs. Stewart's Bluing, although there are a variety of similar products available on the market.
Your littlest darlings' tiny clothing items deserve extra attention. Because regular detergent is so strong, it's often too much for tender infant and toddler skin. Seek mild products or those specially formulated for washing onesies and the like. Even if they don't get out stains as well, they will protect your baby's precious skin.
We know it's tempting to fill the machine to the gills at the end of a long day, but overloading the washer will only result in rumpled clothing that's not as clean as it could be. The goal is to distribute items evenly and somewhat loosely (a rule of thumb is not to fill the tub more than 3/4 full). You'll soon find it's worth it to take the time to run an extra load. Plus, your washer will be less susceptible to frequent repairs.
If the label on your garments include the word "only" after the instruction to dry clean, then you'll want to drop it off at your local cleaners, but if that key word is missing, there's a good possibility that hand-washing will be fine and will actually produce better results in the long-term. Too much dry cleaning leads to dull-looking clothing, and fragile silk garments are likely to hold up better if they are treated with care by hand.
It may be worth it to add "make fabric softener" to your to-do list as most store-bought brands contain strong ingredients and fragrances that can irritate sensitive skin and exacerbate allergies. We recently located a great DIY recipe from One Good Thing, which calls for using...hair conditioner!
Don't even think about tossing your bras, lacy panties or satin pajamas in with the rest of the stuff. These delicate items deserve precious care. Some washing machines have special delicate cycles, but your best bet is still to hand-wash and air-dry. 
There's a reason that washing machines offer choices before you begin a new cycle. Hot water, cold water, permanent press? Pay attention to what you're loading (items should be similar in color and material). The average load should be treated to permanent press, but more soiled items ought to spin on a regular or heavy setting.
Just because it spins with hot soapy water several times a week--or several times a day, if you're like some of us--the washing machine is not actual self-cleaning. It requires regular maintenance in the form of a solid scrub-down. Not only will your machine function better, but that funky smell will vanish, too. 
 
Purchasing natural, eco-friendly detergent is a smart idea, but even better is making your own at home. The powdered stuff can be made fairly quickly and cheaply, and all you need is a few key items. Check out DIY Natural for the details. 
 
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Specifically, the Sheffield scientists wanted to see whether dirty laundry, which smells like humans, would attract bed bugs. We're not talking about shamefully pungent old gym clothes, here: The researchers asked volunteers to wear white cotton t-shirts and socks for three hours in the afternoon, then placed the soiled items into plain cotton tote bags. Then they fed precisely 10 bed bugs a diet of fresh human blood (so they were plenty full) and placed them in a container at the center of a controlled room. Four bags, two with dirty laundry and two with clean versions of the same clothes, were spaced at even intervals in a cross pattern around the bugs.

Once the bed bugs had acclimated to their new home, the container was lifted; they had four days to explore the room. In some runs, the room also contained a block of dry ice to simulate a sleeping human. When the group repeated this multiple times and gathered all the data, they found that bed bugs were twice as likely to make their home in dirty laundry as they were clean laundry. They didn’t wander aimlessly around the room or hide in a corner—they actively chose to live inside the clothes that smelled of human, especially when there was no dry ice for them to swarm to.

Related: Ironing tips everyone should know

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How to iron all of your clothes
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How to iron all of your clothes

Cotton: Iron on high heat while the cloth is still damp to the touch. Use the steam and spray buttons generously/as needed.

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Linen: Iron the garment inside out side on high heat while the cloth is still damp to the touch. Use the steam and spray buttons generously/as needed.

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Wool: Iron the garment inside out on medium-low heat, and use steam to dampen. (Iron onto a pressing cloth if desired, as an extra layer of caution.)

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Silk: Iron the garment inside out on low heat, and just after a wash while still slightly damp—do not spray or steam. Again, use a pressing cloth if necessary.

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Polyester: Iron the garment on medium-low heat while still damp. Spray as necessary, but avoid steaming. (Steam and/or high heat can leave a plastic-like shine.)

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Nylon: Dry iron the garment on low heat. Don't steam, but spray if necessary.

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Acrylic: Dry iron the garment inside out on low heat. Never steam, but spray if necessary.

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Lace: Iron the garment while dry on low heat with a pressing cloth in between to protect. Do not steam or spray.

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Velvet: Never iron, folks—this guy needs steaming.

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Cashmere: Ditto.

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That means that bed bugs could have been hitching a ride in our laundry this whole time, which would explain how they travel between rooms and buildings without any identifiable way for them to physically get there. This also jives with the recent uptick in bed buggery around the world, even after it seemed they were mostly eliminated in the 1940s. When people began traveling internationally more frequently, they also began spreading bed bugs. As we've fought harder and harder against the pests—allowing them to evolve increasing resistance to the chemicals we use to poison them—we've also given them ever more opportunities to bounce around the globe.

This is especially upsetting given how quickly bed bugs multiply. A fertilized female can lay three or four eggs a day, every day, until she dies. Luckily, she only lives about nine months after being traumatically inseminated—regretfully, that is the actual scientific term—by a male bed bug. Traumatic insemination is, somehow, even worse than it sounds. Female bed bugs actually evolved a reproductive tract, but males don’t do anything so pedestrian as push a penis in there. Oh no. They use their hypodermic penises (again, the real term) to pierce their partner's abdomen, injecting her with sperm. Sometimes they get confused and accidentally inject another male with sperm instead, because bed bugs pick their sexual prey based on size.

Related:

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18 things in your home that are covered with germs
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18 things in your home that are covered with germs

Sink: It’s where all your kitchen dirt goes (we hope). In fact, it’s home to as many as 500,000 bacteria per square inch. Spray it down often, clean out your food trap, and scrub with scouring powder like Bon Ami at least once a week.

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Cutting boards: Whether you’re chopping meat, veggies or fruit, your cutting board could be Ground Zero for foodborne illness. Prevent cross-contamination by dedicating one board to meats and another to produce. And always wash your board ASAP after using it—especially if you were working with raw meat. Researchers at UC Davis also recommend plastic cutting boards over wood, because they’re easiest to sanitize—they can go in the dishwasher. Clean a wooden cutting board with soap and warm water, dry it quickly, and seal it with butcher-block oil whenever you notice the wood is drying out.

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Countertops: All the action—chopping, mixing, drink-pouring—happens here, so of course they’re covered with little particles of everything. First off, cut the clutter to give crumbs and germs fewer places to hide. Then wipe them with a damp microfiber cloth after every meal.

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Fridge shelves and drawers: Your refrigerator is home to both raw and cooked foods, and if it’s disorganized, they probably come in contact now and then. Store raw meat in a plastic bag to serve as an extra barrier, and stop spoiled food from turning into science experiments by throwing it away as soon as you notice it. Another cool trick we use at our house: Empty and wipe down the shelves and drawers whenever you do a big grocery shop.

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Sponges: They’ve been banned from commercial kitchens—ban them from yours, too. But if you must use a sponge, rinse it with hot water after every swipe. At the end of every day, get it wet and nuke it in the microwave for a minute. Toss it after a few weeks (one week if you’re missing the daily sanitizing routine).

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Dish towels: If you rush through washing your hands, some germs may still be hanging out on them and you’ll transfer those germs to the dish towel. Change dish towels a few times a week, and wash them with hot water when you do the laundry.

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Makeup brushes: They touch your face every day, coming in contact with oils, bacteria and dead skin cells. Wash them with mild soap whenever you notice makeup buildup.

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Towels: Like dish towels, they pick up any germs left after a shower. Plus, if your bathroom has poor air circulation, towels may get musty if they stay damp too long. Wash them in hot water at least once a week.

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Tub: The equivalent of the kitchen sink for your bod, the tub takes in a lot of grime. Wipe it down with a microfiber cloth every day and get rid of mold spots with baking soda or vinegar. (Find dozens more ways to clean with baking soda here.)

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​​​Floor around the toilet: It gets splashed, plain and simple. For starters, make sure to put the lid down every time you flush. Clean up noticeable spots right away and scrub with bathroom cleaner at least once a week.

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Faucet handles: You touch these before your hands are clean. ‘Nuff said. Wipe them down with a damp microfiber cloth.

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Toothbrush holder: It’s all about gravity: Many of the germs on your toothbrush drip into the holder. Rinse it out daily—do double-duty while you’re brushing your teeth with the other hand. Then sanitize your toothbrush holder in the dishwasher (if it can take it) or give it a good scrub with soap and water.

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Electronics: Smartphones, keyboards, mice, the remote control (OK, let’s be real: 17 remote controls)—germy fingers come in contact with them all the time. In fact, the National Institutes of Health recently found that cellphones are 10 times dirtier than toilet seats. Wipe them with a damp microfiber cloth as often as possible. Don’t forget to remove any cases so you can clean underneath.

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Doorknobs, handles and light switches: Even if your hand only touches these items for a fraction of a second, that’s enough time to transfer bacteria. Once again, a quick wipe-down with a damp microfiber cloth will do.

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Shoe rack: Footwear is a huge culprit for bringing germs into your home, so it’s no surprise that their storage unit is a bacterial breeding ground. Put some elbow grease into cleaning this one and wipe it with bathroom cleaner—you never know what somebody stepped in.

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Carpets and rugs: Even if you’re using the no-shoes rule, carpets suck up every crumb, dead skin cell and germ that hits them. Vacuum weekly and spritz high-traffic areas with a carpet sanitizer. If you can toss rugs into the laundry, do it.

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Bags: Your purse holds money (super dirty!) and your kid’s lunch bag holds food (raise your hand if you ever forget to clean it out over the weekend). Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on cleaning these to keep them in the best shape.

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Toys: No matter whose toys they are—your kid’s or the dog’s—they probably spend a lot of time in somebody’s mouth. Consider what they’re made of, then clean accordingly, tossing them in the laundry, dishwasher, or wiping with a cloth.

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Hopefully we can learn to end this horrifying life cycle by eradicating bed bugs (again). Next time you go on a trip, try to find a laundry service to use before you come home. The heat in a standard dryer cycle will kill any lurking bugs or eggs, and your bag will be less human-smelling en route to boot. And if you return home to find yourself covered in little bites and bumps, call a professional. Even industrial strength pesticides can’t take bed bugs out. But maybe—just maybe—we can kill them with the smell of clean clothes. Eventually.

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