Ask Umbra: Can I keep bugs at bay without a spray?
Send your question to Umbra!
Q. Dear Umbra,
My son is 1.5 and has a very bad reaction to mosquito bites. Think red bumps on steroids transitioning to plague-esque scabs. I am looking at different mosquito repellants that aren’t as toxic (my lemongrass oil isn’t cutting it!) and came across mosquito-repelling stickers and bracelets. I’m wondering if they really work and if so, more scarily, why they work? I don’t want to spend the rest of the summer either indoors or hooked on DEET!
A. Dearest Mary,
Your letter made me realize that I should have addressed all these newfangled insect-repelling items when I talked about bug spray a few weeks back. I’ve been thinking about them a lot since spending time with a family member last month who was trying out a clip-on repellent. Her verdict: “Ehhhh.” But a coworker says she spent an entire family reunion this summer jealous of relatives who successfully used the clip-on doohickeys. So what’s the buzz on wearable alternatives to bug spray?
These items are “a relatively recent phenomenon,” says Joseph Conlon of the American Mosquito Control Association. (Yes, there truly is an organization for everything.) Stickers, wristbands, clip-on canisters, and the like have gained prominence in the last few years in response to concerns about traditional sprays and lotions being too smelly, too greasy, too damaging to fabrics, and too toxic. “Consumers are looking for quick fixes that are minimally intrusive and pretty much fire-and-forget items,” Conlon says.
The general idea behind all of these items is to make you invisible or distasteful to mosquitoes, which are primarily attracted to carbon dioxide (aka your breath) and perspiration (aka sweat). The products rely on various creative ingredients to get the job done:
- Stickers intended to go on your clothing or on gear such as strollers use oils like citronella and lemongrass to try to keep the bugs at bay;
- Skin patches release thiamin (Vitamin B1) into your body, which manufacturers contend makes your skin less scrumptious;
- Wristbands generally rely on citronella or geraniol, which is derived from geraniums, to try to create a protective shield around your body;
- Clip-on canisters release an odorless repellent called metafluthrin, which is EPA-approved but considered more toxic than DEET.
The collective wisdom suggests that these brilliant innovations have one thing in common: They kiiiiinda don’t work. “Bracelets have never been proven to provide even minimal protection compared to lotions or sprays,” says Conlon, adding that the same is true of stickers. AMCA is not exactly objective; it’s backed by heavy-hitters from the world of industrial mosquito control. But my own informal polling and Googling suggests that many, many people out there agree with that assessment. (Of course, research being what it is, that could change: One company, for instance, is hard at work on a new kind of sticker that it hopes to distribute in the developing world, where malaria remains a scourge.)
The clip-on canisters have three strikes against them: First, they are most effective when the air, and you, are still — not a realistic solution for a toddler and mom on the run (or most anyone else). Second, the Environmental Working Group, which put together a comprehensive guide to bug repellents this summer, says the ingredients in clip-ons can pose an inhalation hazard. And third, they’re made of plastic and require a battery, so not exactly your lowest-impact choice.
We haven’t even touched upon insect-repelling caps, clothing, and blankets, which are treated with the insecticide permethrin. These may be good options for heavy-duty travel to areas thick with mosquitoes and ticks, but you don’t need them for your backyard (and they’re not recommended for children).
For gamboling in North Carolina, the solutions are simpler: Cover up as much of your skin as you can to avoid bites; wear light-colored clothes, which mosquitoes find less appealing; stay inside in the early morning and at dusk, when biters are busiest; and avoid standing water, which makes a perfect breeding ground for the bugs. You might also try setting up a fan or two in your yard, which can derail mosquitoes from their flight path to your skin.
Essential oils do work for some people in some areas, but if your lemongrass oil isn’t cutting it, experts say that chemical sprays are an OK option — to a point. Visit the kids’ section of the EWG guide, where they suggest that good choices for kids include repellents with up to 10 percent DEET or 20 percent picaridin, a less toxic ingredient than DEET. EWG also gives detailed guidance on how often to reapply, how to handle sensitivity issues, and other useful information.
With hope, a few tweaks to your habits will make the rest of the summer more pleasant for you and your son — and less satisfying for the skeeters who find him so irresistible.
Donate now to support our work.