Is It Safe To Use Mosquito Repellent?

Photo credit Flickr/kozzmen
Photo credit Flickr/kozzmen

Mosquito Diseases

One thing is certain: mosquito bites are dangerous.  Although most of us think of them as minor annoyances, mosquito borne diseases infect 700 million people worldwide.  Malaria alone kills 2 million children a year. 

Mosquitoes transmit diseases when they take blood from an infected person, then bite their next victim.  Some of the blood from Person A ends up backwashed into the wound the mosquito creates on Person B.  This allows for certain blood-borne diseases to be transmitted easily.

Here in the United States, the CDC warns against a collection of encephalitis variants that are carried by mosquitoes.  In addition to West Nile Virus, mosquitoes also carry Equine Encephalitis, St. Louis Encephalitis, and others.  (Do mosquitoes transmit HIV, the virus that causes AIDS?  No.)

Mosquito Repellent Safety

A lot of people are concerned about applying DEET to their skin. It’s understandable, given what we know about chemicals and the organic lifestyle. However, DEET is really very safe. Study after study has shown that it works better than any alternative, and that if used judiciously it has an extremely low occurrence of side effects.

One misconception is that DEET is an insecticide. This isn’t true. DEET works by disrupting the sensors that mosquitoes use to find you. It basically renders you invisible to mosquitoes. It is an insect repellent – it doesn’t kill an insect, the way an insecticide does.

Field trials conducted by the government of Canada showed the following effective times:

  • DEET, 10%: 2-4 hours
  • Soybean oil, 2%: 90 minutes
  • p-menthane-3,8-diol 10% (as found in OFF! Botanicals Lotion Insect Repellent): 90 minutes
  • Citronella oil, 10%: 20 minutes
  • Lavender oil, 6%: Under 30 minutes

In America, the CDC and the EPA have investigated non-DEET mosquito repellents. Their first recommendation is a repellent which uses Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, also called PMD. This is found on the market in Repel mosquito repellent, which has been found to be quite effective.

Mosquito Control

Preventing mosquitoes from breeding on your property is your first line of defense.  Make sure there are no sources of water available.  Even a tiny amount of water can be enough to breed mosquitoes.  Empty plant dishes, get rid of discarded car tires, clean out your gutters, and keep your lawn trimmed.  (Even a damp lawn can breed mosquitoes.)

In many areas of the country, there are hotlines you can call to report an abandoned swimming pool.  With the wave of foreclosures over the last few years, many people are having to leave their homes – and their swimming pools – behind.  Once a pool isn’t being properly cared for, it can quickly grow green and scummy, and serve as a mosquito breeding pond.

From a perspective of physical repellent, there are very few measures that work.  Citronella candles, dishes of soapy water, ultrasonic frequencies – all of these things are nothing but old wive’s tales mixed with snake oil.

One thing that can work is a big fan, if your family is out on a relatively small patio or deck.  Mosquitoes have a hard time flying in a stiff breeze, so the fan can help keep them away.

The best way to avoid getting a mosquito bite is to stay inside at dusk and dawn, which is when mosquitoes are most active.  You may also want to build and install some bat boxes to encourage bats to move into your neighborhood!  A single bat can eat literally millions of mosquitoes.  And bats are neat, too!

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