This season we’re all worried about mosquitoes. While you may not be traveling to a state or country that has the Zika virus, most of the country is susceptible to mosquito-borne West Nile virus. So it’s no surprise that companies are falling over themselves to sell you super-convenient protection. But not all of these products work—or are safe. To learn more, we spoke with medical entomologist and retired US Navy Commander Joe Conlon, MS, currently technical adviser to the American Mosquito Control Association.
Here’s what he told us…
- Bracelets. Skip. Protection without the mess! It sounds like a nice idea, but mosquito-repellent bracelets just don’t work. “Bracelets will protect your wrist, but not your entire body,” Conlon explains. Researchers at New Mexico State University are working on creating more effective insect-repellent bracelets, but the products now on the market are essentially worthless.
- Skin patches. Skip. Here’s another not-ready-for-prime-time product—skin patches that claim to repel bites with vitamin B-1 and other natural ingredients. Regardless of glowing Internet testimonials, says Conlon, these are “notoriously ineffective.”
- Clip-ons. Skip, even though they work. You can clip these products—which use an EPA-registered pesticide called metofluthrin—onto your pocket, backpack, etc. They’re small, battery-powered fans that circulate the repellent. “These will probably work if there’s no breeze,” Conlon says. “But you’re sitting in the middle of a vapor cloud of pesticide, and I just don’t get a warm, fuzzy feeling with that.”
- Insect-repellent clothing. Get these duds. The military has been using clothing impregnated with a repellent called permethrin for decades, and now the technology—called Insect Shield—is EPA-registered and available to consumers. Conlon used insect-repellent camouflage fatigues while working in the jungle as a Navy entomologist. “This particular technology works exceptionally well,” he says. “You could actually see mosquitoes land on it, and it’s like they landed on an electric grid. They would pull one leg off, then the next leg and then the rest of the legs, then fly for about six inches before dropping dead.” The consumer version also kills—rather than just repels—insects, lasts for about 70 washings and is also effective against ticks. While Insect Shield sells its clothing (and you can send your own clothing to them to be treated), the technology is also widely available—embedded in other manufacturer’s clothing and as a liquid to treat your own clothing—in stores and on the web. Get pants and shirts—and don’t forget socks. “Aedes aegypti—the mosquitoes that transmit dengue, Zika and chikungunya—like to feed on the lower legs,” Conlon says.
- Bug spray. Keep using it! Even if you’re wearing insect-repellent clothing, you should protect exposed areas —such as your face—with traditional bug spray. (To avoid your eyes, spray some on your hands and then apply to your face.) “The gold standard is DEET, and the repellents that contain it have been reformulated so they don’t smell bad and aren’t greasy,” Conlon says. A 25% to 35% DEET formulation will last four hours. If you prefer non-DEET repellents, those that contain picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus are practically as effective as DEET, which also repels ticks, but they do need to be reapplied more frequently.
- Sunscreen with repellent. While they can be effective, you may wind up applying more sunscreen frequently—after swimming, for example. But you don’t want to apply DEET or even natural repellents more often than is recommended. So it’s best to use two different products.
One final piece of advice: Look for an EPA registration number—usually on the back label—on any repellent you’re considering buying. To get it, a product has to undergo testing for safety and effectiveness. “If it hasn’t been EPA-registered,” says Conlon, “I would not use it.” (To learn more ways to protect yourself from mosquitoes and other insects, see the “Bottom Line Guide: Bugged by Bugs?”)