Bounce Fabric Softener will NOT protect you from insects

I usually like Lifehacker, but in this case, FAIL.  Here’s a story they ran 2 weeks ago:

“Bounce Fabric Softener Keeps Mosquitoes and Gnats Away

Some people have sworn by the power of Bounce dryer sheets—and specifically Bounce, too—to keep mosquitoes away from them, and gnats out of their garden. Now scientists have proven the power of fluffy white sheets as an insect repellent.”

Lifehacker wasn’t the only media group that picked up on this story; and pretty much all of them made the same mistake.

When you look at the actual research paper, what you see is that some of what was reported was correct.  There actually WAS a paper that examined the repellency of Bounce dryer sheets to insects.

Raymond A. Cloyd, et al. (2010). Bounce® Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets Repel Fungus Gnat, Bradysia sp. nr. coprophila (Diptera: Sciaridae), Adults.  HortScience, 45, 1830-1833

There is a very large difference between a fungus gnat and a mosquito.  That’s rather like reporting that the care and feeding of cats and humans are interchangeable. Since, you know, we’re all mammals, right?

Let’s start with what a fungus gnat is, and when you’d be likely to encounter them.  Basically, fungus gnats don’t bite. They just annoy.  They’re likely to be the tiny things flitting around the soil of your potted plants.  They can be a commercial pest in greenhouses, but generally they are just a nuisance. They breed in moist soil and nibble on roots.

I think everyone knows what mosquitoes are–a biting fly that can carry major human diseases. They breed in water and adult females require a blood meal from a host to reproduce.

Not. The. Same.

This is an important difference, and it is a difference that has human health implications. If you go out in an area where there are disease-carrying mosquitoes with just a pocket full of dryer sheets as your protection, you are taking a risk with your health.  Media make mistakes covering science news all the time–but in this case, it’s a taxonomic mistake that could  (OK, in THEORY, anyway)  literally cost someone their life.

Now that I’ve impressed upon you what’s at stake, let’s look at the actual experiment, shall we?

The authors tested the repellency of the dryer sheets in a very controlled situation, and were successful at reducing the number of fungus gnats in test chambers containing a dryer sheet.  At the end of their paper there is this caveat:

However, there are still important issues that need to be resolved, including the residual effects (based on age of dryer sheets) and effective distance of repellency, response in a no-choice situation (if dryer sheets are placed into each petri dish), impact on fungus gnat larval populations, and ultimately plant damage.

Now, every scientific paper ends this way. Here’s what we did, and here’s how it’s uncovered a whole host of new questions for us to answer! Continued employment, yay!

What I, as a gardener, would draw from this experiment is that it certainly couldn’t hurt to put a Bounce fabric sheet near my potted plants, if I happened to have a fabric sheet laying around.

But I would not, in a bajilion years, jump to the conclusion that it would protect me from all biting insects.


[crossposted from The Bug Blog]


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. Mainstream news gets a science story wrong, again!
    Someone should write a post about the mainstream news getting the science right.

  2. Fungus Gnat would be an ace name for a Jazz musician. Yeah ….. Fungus Gnat and the Mosquitoes …. doing the jitterbug!

  3. I have friends that do not live here in the FREAKING WOODS OF THE NORTH that tell me how wonderful Skin So Soft is at repelling pests. WE HAVE BLACK FLIES. Winged demons from hell that don’t bite, the CUT, and it itches for a week and swells up and you HURT. I have found only DEET works. Now, you have the idiot parents in Alaska that are on tv spraying DEET in the face of a small preschooler. The child has a seizure… duh… (at least I think duh, as a preschool teacher we spray the kids clothing and ask parents to send the kids in long sleeves and pants until the black fly season is over. We are really careful with the DEET). Hey do those little fan things work?

  4. @Lyra Lynx: Reporters baffled?

    But srsly, Purell did a very nice job cleaning and de-scratching (or at least making the scratches much less visible) on the glass/plastic screens of my iPod touch, my cell phone and my pseudo analog wrist watch.

    And no mosquitoes have sucked any blood from any of these items since I applied the Purell in November.

  5. Up here we keep mosquitoes at bay by slathering ourselves with Crisco. Baffled scientists think it’s the sound of sizzling skin that scares them away. And we aren’t allowed to swat them, since they’re the Wisconsin state bird.

  6. That reminds me of that film, ” My Big Fat Greek Wedding ” , when the father uses Windex for all that ails ya.
    Scientists baffled? Of course they are. They’re trying to find something that isn’t there.

  7. It would be a good idea, I think, to stitch up some bounce sheets into a body suit, then send the reporter out into mosquito/blackfly territory wearing nothing else.
    Then he could report from direct experience.

  8. Go to a Summer League Swim Meet sometime. You would not believe the parents you see walking around with bounce sheets tucked into their sleeves. These are not dumb people and yet…, at least it covers the sweat smell after three hours in the summer sun.

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