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How to Prevent (and Treat) Mosquito Bites, According to Experts

Photo: Disney

The easiest way to avoid mosquitoes (and in particular the female ones, who are the biters) is to make sure there is no standing water anywhere near you. “I’m talking about clogged gutters, tree holes, kids’ toys, tires, bird baths, drip saucers that are under plants, even a pile of leaves,” says Dr. Stan Cope, a.k.a. Captain Stan the Mosquito Man, a retired medical entomologist in the United States Navy and currently the vice president of technical services at pest management company Catchmaster. But there are some folks, standing water or not, who are just more susceptible to bites than others. While carbon dioxide is the number-one thing that mosquitoes are attracted to, your “own unique chemical signature,” as Cope calls it, might also contribute to your appeal. (And contrary to what you might have heard, diet has nothing to do with it.) But according to Dr. Michael Bentley, entomologist for the National Pest Management Association, why a female mosquito, which has very sophisticated senses, might be attracted to one person over another, is really a mystery. “Scientists are still working out the specifics,” he says, “for what combination of the over 200 different chemicals and compounds produced through human skin that make some people more appealing to mosquitoes than others.”

And since you can’t change your genetic makeup, some of us will always need repellent. Below, expert advice on the most effective treatments and personal repellents for keeping mosquitoes from nipping at you this summer.

Best personal mosquito repellents

When choosing a repellent, Bentley; David Brown, technical adviser at the American Mosquito Control Association; and Dr. Mustapha Debboun, a retired medical and veterinary entomologist in the United States Army, co-editor of three books on insect repellents, and general manager Delta Vector Control District in Visalia, California, all recommend looking for repellents that have ingredients that are registered with the EPA and endorsed by the CDC, which include DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, IR 3535, para-menthane-diol (or PMD, which is plant-based), and 2-undecanone. Brown is a fan of the EPA’s search tool that “helps identify the best repellent for the situation I will be in, which I know have been tested for both safe use and repellency.”

But “not all repellents are the same,” says Cope. “The gold standard for years and years is DEET, and many of the products that are out there are DEET-based.” While Cope, Brown, and Debboun say that the way DEET works is still being studied, it’s generally thought to block particular receptors on mosquitoes that prevent them from identifying a potential host for a meal. There are other theories that say that mosquitoes may not like the way DEET feels on their feet, keeping them from landing on your skin. Cope recommends looking at the percentage of DEET found in a formulation, and doesn’t recommend using anything more than 30 percent for the average person, with 5 to 10 percent being enough for one-to-two hours of exposure at a time. That’s because, says Brown, “The higher the concentration of a product does not necessarily provide stronger protection; it just provides longer protection” — but a higher concentration can be convenient if you don’t want to keep reapplying throughout the day. Emily Mader, who works in Cornell University’s Department of Entomology as an extension associate, uses 25 percent DEET products when she is going on a long hike in the deep woods and says that one application would keep her protected for up to six hours. As far as other popular methods of mosquito control are concerned, Bentley says, “Citronella candles can offer some relief when used in combination with protective clothing and insect repellents, but products like these will not serve as a stand-alone repellent against hungry mosquitoes.”

One might think a spray is the best way to go, but Cope says that he personally prefers impregnated wipes (ones that are soaked in the solution and are ready to use). “They’re particularly good for kids because you can just do a better job of spreading it around and getting it where you want it to go,” as opposed to an aerosol can. These towelettes from Off contain 25 percent DEET and are recommended by Strategist contributor Maureen O’Connor, who has “hospitalization-level allergies to several North American insects.” “For on-the-go mosquito-repelling, nothing beats a wet wipe,” she writes. “It’s quick, easy, and can be deployed in a bathroom stall without anyone noticing.”

For something with a higher concentration of DEET, which again means that it will stay on longer, O’Connor recommends Repel’s towelettes, which contain 30 percent of the active ingredient. Strategist writer Jenna Milliner-Waddell took these on a recent trip to Mexico, where she says there was no shortage of mosquitoes. She was reminded that she packed these after forgetting on the first night, but after that, she didn’t get another bug bite for the rest of the trip.

$6 for 12

“If I’m just out in my backyard weeding, working with plants in my yard or something, I might use a product that has picaridin in it,” says Mader. “Some people don’t like the smell of DEET. And products with picaridin usually don’t have an odor, but they’re still very effective in preventing mosquito bites,” she adds. These wipes are EPA-registered and contain 20 percent picaridin. The EPA says they will protect you from mosquitoes for up to eight hours.

This is another EPA-registered repellent. Its active ingredient is IR3535, of which it has a 20 percent concentration. Mader recommends IR3535 for shorter outings like a walk in the park. “It’s really effective for shorter periods of time where you are just in a yard, or maybe in a park, and you’re going to go inside within one to two hours of being outdoors,” she says. This one also has the added benefit of an SPF.

If you’re looking for a natural option, our senior editor Crystal Martin has had luck with this repellent from Kinfield. It’s a spray with a unique strain of Indonesian citronella as the active ingredient. “I wore it the last time I went hiking — no bites,” Martin says, but as our experts have noted, citronella on its own isn’t that effective and should be used in conjunction with other things like protective clothing. Martin herself noticed the difference between this and more potent repellents. “You do have to be realistic,” she says. “It doesn’t work like DEET sprays do. You don’t have that force field around you, but I really like it.” And because there is only a 10 percent concentration of citronella oil, that means you’ll have to reapply it more often than other things on this list. The brand recommends reapplying every two hours, which shouldn’t be a problem. Martin says, “Golden Hour smells really yummy, to the point where I sometimes spray on copious amounts.”

Best mosquito repellent products for your backyard

Summit Mosquito Dunks
$6
$6

There are products that people with outdoor space can buy that are specific only to mosquitoes, like Summit Mosquito Dunks, which kill the larvae before they become mature enough to bite. Cope recommends them because they contain a naturally occurring bacterium called Bti, or Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, that when ingested by mosquito larvae causes their stomach to rupture. “It’s very widely used around the country, both by the municipal mosquito control and private-industry mosquito control folks,” says Cope. To use it, follow the label directions and place the biodegradable donut-shaped disc in any standing water. It floats on the surface and slowly breaks down, releasing Bti. “The reason it works is that mosquito larvae feed on bacteria and small particles in the water. They have a set of brushes on their mouth and they’re constantly sweeping the water into their mouth, and so they’ll pick up this product as it’s suspended in the water.”

Summit Mosquito Bits
$17
$17

Bti, which is registered with the EPA, also comes in the form of corn-kernel-like granules that release the larvicide more quickly than the donuts, which dissolve over time. When used as directed, Bti is nontoxic to other wildlife, pets, fish, and humans.

Best mosquito repellents for clothing

If you don’t want to spray or wipe yourself with DEET, wearing protective clothing like loose-fitting pants and long-sleeved shirts can also help. To add an extra level of prevention, Bentley recommends using permethrin, an EPA-registered insecticide that’s commonly found in delousing products like Nix and is also used as a “tick-killing agent,” that Cope and Brown also vouch for. It comes as a spray that you apply on your shirt and pants, and some companies even sell clothing that’s already treated with it. “Permethrin-impregnated clothing can be very effective in preventing mosquito bites, and if you will be in the woods or heavy brush it is highly recommended,” says Brown. “It’s extremely effective at repelling all flying insects, in addition to ticks and mites.”