A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Can you kill bugs by squirting them with Ivory soap?

April 13, 1984

Dear Cecil:

You frequently deal with the problem of unwanted insectile houseguests in your column, so I thought I would relate my own experience. I have had to fend off cockroaches ever since I began residing in apartments. I have of course tried boric acid, bug bombs, Roach Motels, Raid, etc., with mixed results. One night I turned on the kitchen light and spotted one roach motionless on the counter. As adrenaline raced through our respective bodies, I realized the only artillery I had on hand (besides my hand, yecch!) was a bottle of liquid Ivory Soap. I slowly moved the spout over his suspicious antennae and squeezed. He was hit! He quivered and stumbled as if running into a dense cloud of Black Flag, then flipped over and went on to meet his Maker. I grinned sadistically. But later I wondered: why is such a small amount of this "pure" and "mild" substance so effective? Could it be harmful to humans?

Cecil replies:

I think it is high time you were introduced to the concept of "drowning," M., which was most likely the cause of death in this instance. The soap would also remove the protective oily coating on the roach's exoskeleton, eventually causing it to dehydrate, but that wouldn't result in the scenario of instant death you so graphically describe. The handy Ivory squeeze bottle does have the advantage of providing pinpoint delivery of lethal materials. In addition, the high viscosity of Ivory (as opposed to the runny gloppiness of Brand X) means a little dab will do 'em without your having to flood the room. On the downside, as we say, individually asphyxiating each of the estimated six jillion roaches at large in this country does present certain practical problems.

Tales from the front, Part One

Dear Cecil:

Re M.B.F. of L.A., who wondered why putting Ivory soap on his cockroaches offed them: a friend of mine has lived for many years in a small roach-infested apartment deep in the heart of Hollywood. He used to squirt-gun the little beasties, and it seemed to work, but he discovered that they would dry up and walk away. Then he discovered that if he put a little soap in the water it would "stick" better, and they wouldn't dry up and never walked again! So it's not just a question of drowning — the soap itself seems to make a difference.

Cecil replies:

OK, so maybe I was a bit hasty. Ivory is a detergent, which means it can reduce the surface tension of water, thereby increasing its spreading and penetrating abilities and enabling it to drown cockroaches more dependably. Seems to me we've got the makings of a hell of an ad campaign here.

Tales from the front, Part Two

Dear Cecil:

I have two additional methods to kill cockroaches: the Quick Kill and the Scare Away. To quick kill, keep a squirt bottle on hand with fresh rubbing alcohol. The "stream" setting is best. With a good aim, you can kill instantly. To scare away, put peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves where roaches enter or like to travel. I put handfuls of spices under the sink and fridge. Every few months I'd put fresh spices out again. I found these methods to be safe, cheap, and effective. The spice method was at least as effective as using chemicals and I never had an outbreak like I did when chemicals were used.

Dear Cecil:

Just a suggestion on the cockroach issue, although knowing your feelings on cats, I doubt you'll take kindly to it. Friends of mine took an apartment in Boston's cockroach-infested North End this summer. The first night they found three roaches; over the course of that week, a few more; after that, none. When they related this to a colleague at work, she said, "Let me guess. You have a cat." And sure enough, they did. Cats do have their uses.

Cecil replies:

Hey, man, whatever works for you.

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