How to Identify and Get Rid of Scale on Houseplants

Scale insects are one of the more difficult (and annoying) houseplant pests to control. Their protective shells render normal pesticide sprays less effective. Additionally, their lack of movement and drab coloration can keep their presence hidden from us until it is a large infestation.

This post will discuss what to look for to identify scale on your houseplants and what to do if you find them.

Table of Contents

How to Identify Whether You have Scale?

The best way to identify whether your plant might have scale is to know what scale is, what it looks like, and what signs your plant gives you to signal you might be dealing with scale.

Photo by Rob Curtis,

What is Scale / What does Scale look like?

Adult scale appearance:

  • Small oval or round insect
  • Sucks sap out of leaves and stems
  • Light to dark brown, most-often
  • Can be other colors as well
  • Has a protective, shell-like coating
  • Does not move much, if at all
  • Can be found anywhere on the plant
Photo by Jon Sullivan,

Immature scale appearance:

  • Eggs are laid beneath armoured scale, protected
  • The young hatch and crawl out from under the mother to find its own spot (called crawlers at this stage)
  • Lacks protective shell, making it more susceptible to sprays and predation
Photo by Alison Northup,

There are technically two families of scale insects – hard scale and soft scale, but they can be controlled in a similar fashion.

The main differences between soft and hard scale are:

—- Soft scale has a waxy shell protecting them. They also produce honeydew while feeding. They are typically oval in shape.

—- Hard scale has an armored or hard shell protecting them and do not produce honeydew while feeding. Hard scale can be found in a range of shapes from oblong to circular.

What are some signs your plant has Scale?

  1. Round/ovular bumps on stems or leaves
  2. Sometimes scale secretes shiny/sticky sap while feeding (called honeydew)
  3. This honeydew can allow black sooty mold to grow
  4. Can cause:
    • poor growth
    • a sickly looking plant
    • yellowing or discolored leaves

How Do You Get Rid of Scale on Your Houseplant?

  1. Remove as many as you can by hand
    • This is the easiest way to ensure the adults will be removed since sprays do not penetrate their shells
    • Adults can be picked off using a tool or fingernail.
    • You could also use a cotton swab or pad dipped in rubbing alcohol to dab and remove them, which will eliminate them in the process.
  2. Thoroughly wash off the plant in the sink and remove any black sooty mold if needed
  3. Spray plant with a pesticide to control the crawlers (younger scale insects that haven’t developed a protective armor/coating)
    • Homemade option #1: 4 ounces rubbing alcohol, 1.5 tsp mild dish soap, and 16 ounces water
    • Homemade option #2: 16 ounces water, .5 tsp neem oil, .75 tsp mild dish soap
    • A premade Insecticidal soap
  4. Repeat removing adult scales and spraying the plant with a pesticide weekly until the infestation is gone

What if it is a severe infestation?

Unfortunately, scale insects are one of the hardest pests to gain control over when a large infestation has broken out. If you find yourself with a large infestation and feel like the method above is not enough, you have 2 options (that I’m aware of).

  1. Systemic Pesticide
    • I almost never recommend this option because we are talking about VERY toxic chemicals that are bad for you and bad for the environment.

      If your plant lives outside, I would recommend not using it as it attacks beneficial insects and can harm any other life that comes into contact with your plant. If it is indoors, this is the last resort option for me.

      Systemic pesticides work by being absorbed by the plant through its roots and pumping chemicals that are toxic to pests throughout the plant. The result is that any pests that eat the plant are controlled.

      You apply systemic pesticides by mixing it into the top layer of the plant’s potting mix or diluting it in water. If you mix it into the potting mix, the plant will absorb the pesticide when you water the plant.

      Once the plant absorbs these chemicals, it becomes toxic to you, your family, and the pests you are trying to remove for the next couple of months.

      1. Because they are so powerful, it is very important to read the instructions and use the exact amount needed for the plant’s size as too much can hurt your plant
      2. These chemicals are very dangerous to people and pets so be sure to use with caution and to keep the container and the treated plant somewhere away from small children and pets
  2. Some infestations are so out of control that it isn’t worth risking your other plants to keep a severely sick plant around and it may be time to let it go. This can be tough, but is occasionally necessary.

    If this is a choice that you find yourself needing to make, I am sorry. It really stinks to have a plant you love be too far gone to be able to recover from an infestation.

Additional information on systemic pesticides:

‘Systemic’ pesticides are taken up inside the plant, typically through the root system, so that every part of the plant then contains the chemical. (I say ‘chemical’ here because I can’t think of any organic systemics.) As you can imagine, systemics on food crops are an especially bad idea. In fact, in one of their very first uses, the string beans they were “protecting” became as poisonous to people as the attacking bean beetles.
‘Merit is the most widely used systemic pesticide’, Jay Feldman explained, ‘and the active ingredient in Merit is the chemical most implicated by researchers in the Colony Collapse Disorder decimating honeybee hives around the world. Growers use Merit to protect their plants, bees ingest the chemical when they collect pollen from those plants, and boom—the bees are poisoned because the chemical is in every part of the plant, including the pollen. And this isn’t specific to just Merit; its just one example of how these types of pesticides can have a profound and deadly impact on non-target organisms like pollinators.’

And of course, without pollinators, we got no food or flowers.

Mike, ‘Systemic’ Pesticides Poison Every Pore of Your Plants,
Click here to use ANC’s discount code to receive a discount off of your first Soltech Solutions purchase. Soltech Solutions grow lights have brought my plants so much happiness. I can’t recommend them highly enough!

How can you avoid your plants getting scale?

Scale often rides in on new plants you buy or receive as a gift. As such, it is hard to avoid.

You can avoid spreading it to your other plants, however, by quarantining the new plant.

The recommendation is to keep a new plant away from existing plants for at least 3 weeks. If the plant is pest-free after 3 weeks, you can introduce it to your established plants.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always feasible for those of us with many plants and limited space.

If you can’t quarantine your plant, here are some other possible ways to help stop the spread of pests:

Do not allow your plants to touch one another so houseplant pests, including scale, have to work harder to move from one plant to another.

You can also pretreat plants with an organic spray to hopefully control or guard against outbreaks.

I personally use the diluted neem oil and dish soap spray mentioned above as a pre-treatment on plants. This has been effective for me in MOST cases. If a plant arrives in a particularly weak state, pretreating doesn’t always help to deter pests.

I just found a plant with aphids for the third time this week and I’m positive it is because the plant has never fully recovered after each attack. I’ve been checking daily and I think the aphids are gone again. *fingers crossed*

The truth is that pests can find a way even if we quarantine, pretreat, and never let our plants touch – but they will have a more difficult time finding a way, which is what we want!

Big Takeaways:

  1. Scale insects are particularly hard to treat because of the hard or waxy shell they use to protect themselves
  2. Look for sticky sap, black mold, round-ish bumps (on leaves and stems), and discolored leaves to help identify whether you have scale on your plant
  3. To remove them, manually get rid of as many as possible and then treat the plant with an organic, pesticidal spray – then repeat this as necessary until the infestation is gone.


  1. marna

    Thanks! I have 2 gorgeous scheffleras (sp?) and just found scale on one of them … I’m disappointed. Discovered it because I’m getting two foster puppies today and have to do some rearranging. I need to find time to get after those bugs, but these pups will keep me pretty busy…. Informative post, thank you very much.

  2. Chris

    Thank you! They spread across all my plants especially on my lemon tree, had to cut it, too many full infested… Now i rub the plants with wet napkins and alchohol.. Cheching each week for new scales



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