Mosquitoes are an inevitable part of summer. And this year, with COVID in mind, we may be spending more time outdoors than usual.
Supermarkets and drugstores offer a wide range of insect repellents including sprays, creams, gels, sprays, roll-ons, and wipes. There are even wristbands, fabric sprays, bobbins, rods, plug-ins, and smartphone apps.
But not all products that claim to protect us from mosquito bites are the same.
So how do you choose and use a repellent to better protect you and your family from mosquito bites?
The key ingredients
Australian health authorities recommend the use of insect repellents to be applied directly to exposed skin to prevent mosquito bites and reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases.
All insect repellents sold in Australia must be registered with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Drugs Authority (APVMA), which verifies that the products are safe and effective.
Despite the wide range of formulations available, there are only a small number of active ingredients registered for use. Therefore, any insect repellent on shelves in Australia will contain at least one of these ingredients.
Lemon eucalyptus oil is becoming more and more common in mosquito repellents. The chemical, p-menthane-3,8-diol, is derived from the leaves of the lemon-scented chewing gum Corymbia citriodora.
This ingredient is a byproduct of the distillation process, not an essential oil extracted from the leaves of the plant. This is important, as this product is a much more effective repellent than essential oils (we’ll get to these alternatives shortly).
Formulations containing eucalyptus lemon oil provide protection comparable to DEET-based repellents.
The active ingredient of the repellent will appear on the package, along with the concentration.
Any insect repellent that contains these products should provide protection against mosquito bites. But the stronger the formulation, the longer the protection will last.
If you’re only out for a couple of hours, let’s say in the garden, there’s really no need for a highly concentrated formulation. But if you’re going for a long bushwalk or fishing trip, choose a highly concentrated product (regardless of the active ingredient).
Diethyltumide (DEET) is one of the most used and recommended repellents in the world. It effectively prevents mosquito bites and has been repeatedly shown to have minimal negative side effects when used as directed.
DEET formulations in Australia are available in a variety of strengths, from 10% to “tropical strength” or “tropical strength” products which can reach 80%.
Picaridin is a common ingredient in local formulations of mosquito repellents and effectively reduces mosquito bites. Like DEET, it has been classified as safe to use. Most formulations in Australia have concentrations below 20%.
How you use it is also important
A dab here and there, or sprinkling repellent into the air around you, as you would perfume, won’t give you much protection.
These products should be applied in a thin, even layer on all exposed areas of the skin. Think of repellents as camouflaging us from blood-seeking mosquitoes.
While a spray or pump sprayer may allow for application straight from the container, you will need to rub creams, roll-ons, and gels into your skin.
This does not necessarily mean that one is better than the other. But when choosing a formulation, think about the one you think you can fully apply with the greatest of ease.
And the “natural” alternatives?
Some “natural” formulations containing tea tree oil and other plant active ingredients are APVMA registered. Products sold in local or online markets may not be registered.
In particular, products that contain plant-based repellents generally do not provide lasting protection against mosquito bites.
If you prefer to use products that contain tea tree oil or other botanical repellents, you should be prepared to reapply them much more frequently than formulations of DEET, picaridin, or eucalyptus lemon oil.
And if you make your own essential oil repellents, without the controls associated with APVMA registered repellents, there could be an increased risk of adverse skin reactions.
Can anything else help?
There is no proof against mosquitoes, bracelets, or smartphone apps will protect you from mosquito bites.
A range of candles, coils, poles, vents and ventilation devices, and insecticide-treated clothing offer variable aid in reducing mosquito bites. But, unfortunately, none of these provide complete protection and are always best paired with topical mosquito repellents.
Some people feel that “chemical” repellents put our health at risk. But, in most cases, they can be safely applied to anyone over 12 months old. (For babies, it is best to provide physical protection, such as covering the stroller with a mosquito net.)
It is also often said that these traditional repellents are not pleasant to use. But even though the active ingredients haven’t changed much, the cosmetic components of insect repellents have improved significantly in recent years.
To face the summer, choose a repellent formulation registered with APVMA. Choose the one that is easiest to spread on the skin to provide full coverage. And always check the directions on the label.