Which mosquito repellents work best?
Come summertime, three topics dominate every conversation in my hometown of Memphis, Tenn.: who makes the best barbecued ribs, what really constitutes blues music, and which mosquito repellent works best. Everybody—and I do mean everybody—has his or her own bug remedy, ranging from sticks and sprays containing concentrated chemical or homeopathic agents to eccentric treatments involving bright-colored clothing and Bounce fabric-softener sheets. It's no wonder citizens of the Bluff City take their mosquito combat so seriously: 126 years ago, a yellow fever epidemic killed 5,000 residents.
Yellow fever may be uncommon today, but mosquitoes are capable of spreading it and other diseases like encephalitis, West Nile virus, and malaria. They're also incredibly irritating. How to fight them? For decades, people used DEET for personal protection until serious toxicity concerns surrounding environmental and health hazards surfaced in the 1980s. (Click
Consequently, a host of DEET alternatives have come on the scene. As of April 2005, the CDC endorsed two additional repellent agents—picaridin, a colorless and odorless chemical, and the all-natural oil of lemon eucalyptus. While DEET is believed to disable the insect's antennae receptors—thwarting its ability to detect body heat, carbon dioxide, or lactic acid, the three clues that an all-you-can-eat blood buffet is near—picaridin forms a barrier on the human skin, similarly deterring hungry insects. The stinky oil of lemon eucalyptus confuses the bugs, masking both carbon dioxide and lactic acid exhalations. Repellents featuring these ingredients represent only a fraction of products on the market today, so the question that bears asking is: Which one works best?
I set out to test two categories of personal repellents: chemical agents and natural treatments. First, I surveyed drugstore shelves for popular brands. I also polled mosquito experts—including a dermatologist, an epidemiologist, and a fisherman. After paring down my list to nine products, I devised plans for three rounds of tests. The first two rounds occurred with friends at backyard cookouts. The third round consisted of a group of friends and me on the bluffs of the Mississippi—prime mosquito territory. For three hours we rubbed, we sprayed, we drank several cases of beer. Many of us were bitten incessantly; a lucky few fared well with our choices.
All participants rated repellents on three factors. Ease of use (10 percent of total score): Is the repellent easy to apply? Does it require multiple applications? Practicality (20 percent): Would you wear this to an outdoor evening wedding or a romantic meal down by the river, or is the scent too overpowering? Does it stain clothes? Is it sticky? Effectiveness (70 percent): How durable is the product? Does it work as promised? Most importantly, does it successfully fend off bloodsuckers? And finally, natural products received a five-point bonus.
The results, from worst to best:
L.L. Bean's Buzz Off Adirondack Baseball Hat
Price $29 at llbean.com
Category: chemical agent
Active ingredient: permethrin
L.L. Bean has created an entire apparel line for adults and children devoted to repelling insects—ranging from T-shirts to socks to blue jeans. Clothes are treated with the patented Buzz Off Insect Shield, an insect-killing pesticide, not a repellent, and are guaranteed to ward off ticks, no-see-ums, and mosquitoes through 25 washings.
Given L.L. Bean's simple endorsement: "As long as you are wearing Buzz Off apparel, you're protected," everyone fought for an opportunity to try on this cap. The pesticide itself was invisible and odorless, and as long as you don't mind getting hat head, you can sport it in style. But we quickly learned that the whole Buzz Off wardrobe is necessary to fend off Memphis mosquitoes: The hat was helpless against bugs buzzing below the neck and ankles; arms and wrists were bitten mercilessly. At $29, that's a high price to keep only your head pest-free.
Andria Lisle, the author of Waking Up In Memphis, is a regular contributor at Mojo, Paste, and the Oxford American magazines.
Illustration by Nina Frenkel.