The War On Mosquitoes: What Works?


‘Tis the season. Malaria apparently sucks, and even itchy bites are a summer scourge. So, what actually keeps them away?

Mosquitoes are attracted to CO2, warmth and humidity. They also like: sweat, lactic acid, dark clothing, and fruity fragrances. In other words, your skin is going to draw them, even if you’re one of the lucky few whose chemistry, for whatever reason, they find less Bella-Swan-delicious. And for centuries, we’ve been trying to repel them – ideally, without harming children and other living things in the process. On a recent nature walk with a homeopath forager, I asked him what he recommended as an effective, natural repellent. “There is none,” he said glumly. “And I’ve been searching for 30 years.” Well, it’s not quite that grim: there are, of course, options, even if you’re as scrupulous as my guide. A few?

  • Repellents. You know the drill: smelly, toxic and effective (see: DEET) or smelly, sticky and partially effective (most natural brands.) Remember: whatever you use, water, sunscreen, and heat (ie evaporation) can all lower the effectiveness/duration of your product, so apply accordingly.
  • DEET (no relation to DDT) is serious stuff, made up of N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide. It actually has a good safety record (barring a few worrisome animal-cognition tests) and if you’re not worried about chemicals on your skin or in the air, one such that’s performed consistently well is “OFF! Deep Woods,” which looks like heavy-duty household cleanser for a reason and is recommended for camping and swamp situations. That said, avoid spraying more than once every 5 hours and please, keep away from eyes. And yes, the smell might as well be in the dictionary under “bug spray.”
  • If you’re wary of chemicals, there are increasing numbers of botanicals out there. These rely on natural deterrents like citronella, geranium, lemongrass and cedar. Do keep in mind, always, that because a product is botanical does not mean it’s safe for everyone: fragrances and plants can affect different people differently! (I apparently have a clove oil sensitivity – who knew?) A few reasonably effective – and fragrant, if not delicious – alternatives are California Baby, Badger Balm and Kiss My Face, all readily available at health-food stores and on-line. These are, it’s true, not as effective as the chemical varietal: you’ll need to reapply often, and peace of mind doesn’t come cheap. You’ll also smell slightly “Gathering of the Vibes,” but who’s to say that’s worse than Eau de Chemical Sleepaway? Oh, and if you have a whole lab of essential oils around, make your own!
  • Speaking of iconic summer smells, Citronella Candles are still standard picnic-table-ware. Do they work? Sorta. If you’re right next to the torch. Best to double-up with on-skin bug-spray if you’re infested.
  • Today, the New York Times brings us the best news of all: an effective, non-toxic deterrent might be found in household fans. Says the article,
  • Studies have found that wind is an effective method against mosquitoes and other airborne pests. The reason seems obvious: it prevents them from circling and landing on you, like a windstorm keeping a plane from its descent. But that is not entirely the case. A fan dilutes and disperses the carbon dioxide you exhale. Carbon dioxide is one of the major chemicals that attract mosquitoes. The wind from a fan also cools you off. Sweat, lactic acid and body heat attract mosquitoes – factors that a fan can help minimize.
  • And while a big-scale outdoor fan isn’t an option for all of us, the indoor varietal – on medium or high, so found researchers – certainly is.

    The Claim: To Repel Mosquitoes, Use A House Fan
    [NY Times]
    Citronella (Oil Of Citronella) (021901) Fact Sheet [EPA]
    DEET [Wikipedia]

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