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Avoiding Mosquito Bites Naturally

For decades, applying DEET has been the principal method for avoiding mosquito bites. Now scientists have developed other options.

Summer fun is easily ruined by insects. Ask any dermatologist how to avoid mosquito bites and you’ll be told that DEET is the answer (New England Journal of Medicine, July 4, 2002). Pediatricians who asked, Does anything beat DEET? answered with a resounding NO (Pediatric Annals, July 2004). The U.S. military developed DEET in the 1940s to protect its personnel from diseases carried by mosquitoes, biting flies, other insects and ticks. Such critters intensely dislike the smell of DEET and avoid it.

Possible Alternatives to DEET:

The trouble is that many people also dislike DEET. It can irritate the skin and has a greasy feel. Questions have been raised about neurotoxicity, especially when combined with permethrin, used on clothing to repel insects (Pharmacology, Biochemistry & Behavior, Feb. 2004). Nonetheless, a 33 percent DEET cream made by 3M (Ultrathon) is the standard issue insect repellent for the military.

Other ingredients have been tested and are approved by the FDA for deterring insects. Picaridin is apparently about as effective as DEET, but there have been fewer skin reactions reported. It is used to repel ticks, chiggers, fleas, biting flies and mosquitoes.

Another compound, IR3535, has been used in Europe for avoiding mosquito bites. Experts classify it as a biopesticide because it is closely related to the amino acid alanine. In the U.S., it is found in Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard products.

Other natural approaches include products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus or citronella, derived from lemon grass. A product combining soybean oil, coconut oil and geranium oil (Bite Blocker) works longer than citronella but does not work against ticks.

Have You Tried Avoiding Mosquito Bites with Home Remedies?

Some readers have shared their own favorite ways of avoiding mosquito bites. While they have not conducted fancy clinical trials, they have the advantage of direct experience.

Here are some that may be of interest:

“I have used the ‘Dirt Doctor’s’ (Howard Garrett) formula for mosquito repellent with great success: Mix 8 oz water with 2 tsp vanilla extract and 1 tsp orange oil. Spray this on liberally. It gives me about 6 hours of protection.”

In a similar vein, a reader remarked:

“My daughter made me an herbal insect repellant that I found very effective. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for me. Mix 3 ounces distilled water, 1 ounce almond oil, 10 drops peppermint oil and 10 drops of lavender oil. Shake before spraying it on skin.

“Unlike the commercially prepared herbal insect repellent I have tried, this does not give me a rash.”

Another reader has a different approach:

“I take odorless garlic gel caps every day to help my circulation and mosquitoes stay away while biting everyone else! There is no odor with these gels, so it’s just another benefit of garlic that I didn’t plan on.”

Science Does Not Support Garlic as a Mosquito Repellent:

Q. Years ago, I watched a talk by Dr. Andrew Weil, who advised eating a clove of garlic for good health. Ever since, I’ve been eating a clove of garlic chopped into my daily salad dressing.

It dawned on me several years later that I could not remember the last time I was bitten by a mosquito. I have seen a mosquito land on my arm and leave without biting. My wife gets bite after bite, and I am not bitten at all.

A. We wish that all of us could get such benefit from eating garlic. However, a double-blind trial did not find evidence that consuming a clove of garlic deters mosquitoes (Medical and Veterinary Entomology, March 4, 2005). On the other hand, even the investigators admitted that a single clove of garlic is not much to go on. Perhaps garlic would work better if people consumed it for a long time, as you have. Or perhaps it is something else about your personal chemistry that discourages mosquitoes from biting you. If you are in an area where mosquitoes are carrying malaria, Zika or West Nile virus, you may want to make sure you are using a really effective repellent.

Some remedies don’t work for everyone.

One woman wrote:

“I started applying coconut milk, thinking it might help my skin from a lot of sun exposure during yard work. A ‘side effect’ I noticed was that the mosquitoes were not biting me. Neither did ticks, though they’d been a serious problem before. My neighbor says it doesn’t help her, though I’m not sure why.”

We too do not understand why a remedy that works for one person may fail to help another. The afore-mentioned personal chemistry might play a role. You may be interested to learn that scientists have identified compounds in coconut oil that keep flies and bedbugs from biting (Scientific Reports, Sep. 19, 2018). We hope they will continue their research to offer us other options for avoiding mosquito bites.

You’ll find more stories from readers about natural mosquito repellents at PeoplesPharmacy.com

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Pollack RJ et al, "Repelling mosquitoes." New England Journal of Medicine, July 4, 2002. DOI: 10.1056/NEJM200207043470102
  • Roberts JR & Reigart JR, "Does anything beat DEET?" Pediatric Annals, July 2004.
  • Abou-Donia MB et al, "Co-exposure to pyridostigmine bromide, DEET, and/or permethrin causes sensorimotor deficit and alterations in brain acetylcholinesterase activity." Pharmacology, Biochemistry & Behavior, Feb. 2004. DOI: 10.1016/j.pbb.2003.10.018
  • Zhu JJ et al, "Better than DEET repellent compounds derived from coconut oil." Scientific Reports, Sep. 19, 2018. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-32373-7
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