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Insect Control:

Soaps and Detergents


Fact Sheet No. 5.547 Insect Series| Home and Garden

by W.S. Cranshaw*
Soaps have been used to control insects are not designed for use on plants. Dry dish Quick Facts
for more than 200 years. Recently, there has soaps and all clothes-washing detergents are
been increased interest in and use of these too harsh to be used on plants. Also, many • Soaps can be used to control
products. This change is due to a better soaps and detergents are poor insecticides. a wide range of plant pests.
understanding of how to use soaps most Identifying safe and effective soap-detergent Small, soft-bodied arthropods
effectively and a desire to try insecticides combinations for insect control requires such as aphids, mealybugs,
that are easier and safer to use than many experimentation. Regardless of what product psyllids and spider mites are
currently available alternatives. is used, soap-detergent sprays are always most susceptible to soaps.
How soaps and detergents kill insects is applied diluted with water, typically at a
still poorly understood. In most cases, control concentration of around 2 to 3 percent • The ease of use, safety and
results from disruption of the cell membranes (Table  1). selective action of soaps
of the insect. Soaps and detergents may also appeal to many people.
remove the protective waxes that cover the
insect, causing death through excess loss Susceptible Insects • Limitations of soaps include
of water. Most research with insecticidal soaps the need to wet the insect
and detergents has involved control of plant during application, absence
pests. In general, these sprays are effective of any residual effectiveness,
Soap-Detergent Sprays against most small, soft-bodied arthropods, and potential to damage
Soaps and detergents act strictly as contact such as aphids, young scales, whiteflies, some plants.
insecticides, with no residual effect. To be psyllids, mealybugs, and spider mites.
effective, sprays must be applied directly to • Soaps or detergents used
Larger insects, such as caterpillars, sawflies
and thoroughly cover the insect. and beetle larvae, generally are immune to for control of insects are
Several insecticidal soaps are distributed soap sprays. However, a few large insects, applied as dilute sprays,
for control of insects and mites. Available including boxelder bugs and Japanese beetles, mixed with water to produce
under a variety of trade names, the active are susceptible. a concentration of about
ingredient of all is potassium salt of fatty Insecticidal soaps are considered selective 2 percent.
acids. Soaps are chemically similar to liquid insecticides because of their minimal
hand soaps. However, there are many features adverse effects on other organisms. Lady
of commercial insecticidal soap products beetles, green lacewings, pollinating bees
that distinguish them from the dishwashing and most other beneficial insects are not
liquids or soaps that are sometimes very susceptible to soap sprays. Predatory
substituted. Insecticidal soaps sold for control mites, often important in control of spider
of insects: mites, are an exception: a beneficial group of
• are selected to control insects; organisms easily killed by soaps.
• are selected to minimize potential plant
injury; and
• are of consistent manufacture. Application
Some household soaps and detergents One of the most serious potential
also make effective insecticides. In particular, drawbacks to the use of soap-detergent sprays
certain brands of hand soaps and liquid is their potential to cause plant injury – their
dishwashing detergents can be effective for phytotoxicity. Certain plants are sensitive to
this purpose. They are also substantially less these sprays and may be seriously injured. © Colorado State University
expensive. However, there is increased risk For example, most commercial insecticidal Extension. 12/96. Revised 3/08.
of plant injury with these products. They soaps list plants such as hawthorn, sweet www.ext.colostate.edu
pea, cherries and plum as being sensitive to
*
Colorado State University Extension entomologist soaps. Portulaca and certain tomato varieties
and professor, bioagricultural sciences and pest
also are sometimes damaged by insecticidal
management. 3/2008
Table 1. Approximate mix to produce various dilute soap sprays.
Percent dilution Approximate amount of soap to add to water to produce:
desired Gallon Quart Pint
1 2 1/2 Tbsp (-) 2 tsp (+) 1 tsp (+)
2 5 Tbsp (-) 4 tsp (+) 2 tsp (+)
3 8 Tbsp (+) 2 Tbsp (+) 1 Tbsp (+)
4 10 Tbsp (-) 2-1/2 Tbsp (+) 4 tsp (+)
(+) Will produce a solution of slightly higher concentration than indicated.
(-) Will produce a solution of slightly lower concentration than indicated.

soaps. The risk of plant damage is greater undersides of leaves and other protected
with homemade preparations of household sites. Insects that cannot be completely
soaps or detergents. When in doubt, test wetted, such as aphids within curled leaves,
soap-detergent sprays for phytotoxicity will not be controlled.
problems on a small area a day or two Environmental factors also can affect
before an extensive area is treated. use of soaps. In particular, soaps (but
Plant injury can be reduced by using not synthetic detergents) are affected by
sprays that are diluted more than the 2 to the presence of minerals found in hard
3 percent suggested on label instructions. water, which results in chemical changes
To reduce leaf injury, wash plants within producing insoluble soaps (soap scum).
a couple of hours after the application. Control decreases if hard-water sources are
Limiting the number of soap applications used. Insecticidal soaps may also be more
can also be important, as leaf damage can effective if drying is not overly rapid, such
accumulate with repeated exposure. as early or late in the day.
However, because of the short residual Soaps and detergents can offer a
action, repeat applications may be needed relatively safe and easy means to control
at relatively short intervals (four to seven many insect pests. As with all pesticides,
days) to control certain pests, such as spider however, there are limitations and hazards
mites and scale crawlers. Also, application associated with their use. Understand
must be thorough and completely wet these limitations, and carefully follow all
the pest. This usually means spraying label instructions.

Colorado State University, U.S. Department of


Agriculture and Colorado counties cooperating.
CSU Extension programs are available to all without
discrimination. No endorsement of products mentioned
is intended nor is criticism implied of products not
mentioned.