I‘m sure everyone who loves being outdoors has experienced them – itchy mosquito bites. Flying critters harass you when you want to relax in your garden or during a vacation in exotic countries.
I had my fair share of insect bites and was fed up. I needed a method to prevent them. Some years ago I decided to research the best strategies against mosquitoes and put them into practice. This article aims to give you a short overview of what helped me to reduce the number of bites. Apart from scientific studies I’m also going to share my personal experiences with mosquito bite prevention.
Before I dive into the different methods, let me make it clear that nothing guarantees 100% protection.
There are 200 mosquito species in the US alone (and 3000 worldwide). A certain repellent may work for one type, but can be totally useless for another. Furthermore mosquitoes are attracted by numerous factors: sweat, odor, patterns, daytime, temperature, weather, etc… Despite your best efforts you’ll still get bitten occasionally.
What you can expect
I personally don’t mind an itchy melt here and there – but sometimes bites are more than a nuisance. Zika, Dengue and other viruses are transmitted through mosquitoes. Severe infections are rare, but you should minimize your risk nonetheless. The most reliable way to protect yourself is bite prevention.
Many people have special preferences, e.g. they want to limit themselves to natural repellents that keep environmental impact and side effects low. Go with them, as long as they effectively protect yourself.
From my experience it’s best to experiment with different methods until you come up with a solution that works for YOU. Think about your needs. Natural Plants can be a viable barrier against mosquitoes in your garden, but you can’t carry them with you while traveling. Consequently, don’t expect a solution that will work under all circumstances:
There are no magic bullets regarding mosquito prevention.
There are different options for different needs. I’ll cover personal repellents first and then go through some other methods that can reduce your risk of mosquito bites. Let’s start with repellents that can help you with instant protection:
One of the best ways to prevent mosquitoes – at least in my opinion – is protective clothing and netting. They are cheap, have no negative side effects regarding your health and offer a reliable layer of protection. Additionally there are lightweight nets available that you can take with you anywhere.
Nets with high mesh counts (roughly more than 1000) even help against no-see-ums so I recommend them to everyone who is camping outside. Create a barrier between you and nasty critters whenever you can. Every mosquito that can’t reach you is a bug you won’t have to deal with. However, I also understand that it’s not always feasible to wear heavy clothing or netting in hot environments. Fortunately you can opt for other repellents that work great:
Different types of sprays
There are many different types of mosquito sprays and I’m going to cover the more popular choices here. Most people think of sprays with DEET when it comes down to bite prevention. The idea is simple: use chemicals on your exposed skin to cover your body’s odors. Once applied, mosquitoes will still land on you but they won’t bother you as long as the ingredients last.
This has several advantages: sprays are easy to apply and offer instant protection against most mosquito species. In comparison to many other solutions they have been proven in numerous scientific reviews – check out this meta-study which compares some widely used methods.
From a scientific standpoint, DEET offers great protection and low side effects. This may come as a surprise because everyone who has used it can attest how awful it smells. Its chemical scent is not appealing and I know many people who avoid frequent application of DEET. And yes, some may experience side effects like skin irritation or more severe conditions.
However, the risks are considered lower than the effects of mosquito-borne diseases. This stuff just plain works and that’s why it’s recommended by most experts. I personally use it every time I visit high risk areas because it not only helps against mosquitoes but ticks and no-see-ums as well. That said I try to limit using it as much as possible (with clothes, mosquito control, nets). It’s a very aggressive substance and can decompose plastics/gear.
Picaridin and IR3535 are viable alternatives. These ingredients come out of the lab as well and offer similar protection. In comparison to DEET they smell way nicer and are known to have less side effects. You can use Picaridin on synthetic clothing without having to worry that it destroys them. Sprays with these ingredients can be an option for everyone who can’t stand DEET. From my experience they work a bit less reliable against other insects like midges. Nonetheless I stick to them whenever I can because I prefer their smell and have yet to experience any negative effects.
Another option is Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus. It’s a natural plant oil that keeps mosquitoes at bay. During scientific research it has proven to be as effective as synthetic repellents – for shorter amounts of time. As long as you don’t forget to reapply it frequently it can be an effective method to prevent mosquito bites. Many of my friends who are sceptic of DEET use it because they prefer natural solutions. Be sure to read the label carefully because some OLE sprays contain oils that are from non-natural sources.
There are many other methods available. Many people rely on a variety of plant-based oils like Neem or Citronella. From a scientific standpoint, they seem to work less reliable. One reason is that natural oils are less stable. In order to be effective they often require an accurate formula and last only up to a certain point (shelf life is very important).
I personally found them to be hit and miss. Maybe it has to do with the types of mosquitoes you deal with. My citronella-based spray from Thailand worked well there but it didn’t offer much protection back in the States (Washington, Florida). Of course the same holds true for many other types of repellents: DEET, citronella candles, mosquito coil, plants – I’ve heard many dissenting opinions regarding all of them because each has its pros and cons.
Before I come to a final conclusion (hint: there is no best repellent – it depends on your needs) I’ll cover some other strategies that are useful:
Apart from repellents that offer short-term protection there are some long-term strategies to consider. In case you visit a high-risk vector frequently (hopefully it’s not your garden) you can try to control your local mosquito population.
The single best way is to get rid of any breeding grounds. Mosquitoes lay their eggs onto water surfaces. Larvae can hatch in ponds, bird baths, clogged rain gutters, old tires – basically anything that is humid and hot. Once grown up, mosquitoes are hiding in hedges until they can harass you. Consider cutting them down if you suffer from a lot of attacks – or better, try to replace them with some plants that are known to repel mosquitoes.
Spotting your environment can also help you during a trip. Avoid wet grounds and observe the mosquitoes: are they only active during dawn? Can you rest at a place with a slight breeze? Is there anything you can do to create a barrier between you and mosquitoes? Is there a link between your diet and the bite frequency?
Mosquito control tools
I reviewed my fair share of tools to control mosquitoes and most of them require constant maintenance and experimentation with placement, modes, operation. They help to keep the air clean but you’ll have to invest a lot of time and money in them.
There’s a variety of mosquito traps available. While they can work it’s unlikely to protect larger areas (1 acre+) with them. Consider traps for your yard or smaller places. The same holds true for pesticides for personal use. This method of mosquito control not only has a strong environmental impact but can backfire too: For example, an insect killer might harm other bugs which eat mosquito larvae – as a result, the number of critters actually increases.
In order to keep my yard clean, I stick to mosquito dunks (dried bacteria that kill the offspring before it hatches) and a trap that deals with adult insects. However keep in mind that such methods have limitations: If your neighbor’s pond is a mosquito paradise, the best trap on your property won’t make a difference.
What is the best way to prevent bites?
My general advice is: experiment with different methods.
I know that’s a rather unsettling conclusion – but there are so many different species and environmental factors involved that it’s hard to recommend an all-in-one repellent that fits everyone.
I personally had great success with the synthetic sprays above. I stick to stronger tools like DEET, Picaridin or IR3535 in heavily infested vectors. They are more practical during trips than other forms of protection and don’t need to reapplied every 2 hours.
My sprays with DEET and Picaridin worked in the US, Brazil, Africa, South East Asia… I consider them a reliable last resort when everything else fails. Nonetheless I avoid them whenever I can (a great tip is to ask local people about their strategies). Often those chemicals are overkill, especially in low risk areas.
Mosquito control can work too, but it takes some time and effort. In my opinion making myself invisible to critters is far more feasible/flexible than trying to clean the environment of all mosquitoes.
But that’s just me. Not everyone is comfortable with DEET or other chemicals on their skin. I recommend that you try out a method that fits your needs (I rely on scientific studies in the beginning, too much snake oil out there). Then field test it YOURSELF.
Appropriate clothing, mosquito control and less aggressive plant oils can offer protection when there aren’t hundreds of mosquitoes swarming around – just be sure to always have a fallback option in case something doesn’t work.
Mark Anderson is the founder of Mosquitofixes.com. He is a passionate traveler and loves to be out in the woods. During his trips to all 5 continents he experimented with numerous methods to get rid of mosquito bites. If you’ve come up with a strategy to keep mosquitoes at bay, feel free to share your thoughts with him. Mark is always interested to give new solutions a try. To help others, he shares his observations and spends way too much time researching little insects he loathes.