“Natural” Bug Repellants Don’t Work as Well as Perfume!

Mosquitos: the worst! Especially if you live in a place where not only are they super annoying, but they also carry deadly diseases. That’s why figuring out how to get rid of them, or at least stop them from spreading those diseases, has become a huge humanitarian effort.

On a sidenote, mosquitos are also a pretty good argument against the existence of a benevolent god. Yes, they are a part of the food chain in that a lot of fish and birds eat them, but if they were to go extinct tomorrow, there’s a good chance that the world would be just fine. So. Fuck mosquitos, and if a god made them and put them here on purpose, then fuck him, too.

Mosquitos find people to bite by seeking out a few things, including body heat, the carbon dioxide you breathe out, and the chemicals that seep out of your disgusting skin, you leaky bag of sentient meat.

Right now, DEET is the best stuff we have for warding off mosquitos. It’s a chemical also known as diethyltoluamide, developed by the US military in the 1940s. Weirdly, no one was sure exactly how it worked until 2011 when a neurobiologist named Leslie Vosshall figured out that the chemical wasn’t stopping mosquitos from smelling people — it was scrambling the chemical signal so that they couldn’t tell what they were smelling.

DEET can be mildly irritating if you rub it all over your skin for extended periods of time, and it’s not a good idea to put it on babies. For those reasons, plus the fact that it is a chemical with a scary chemical name, there are a lot of people who are scared of it, and so instead they use “all natural” bug repellants. A recent study shows that not only are those products full of shit, but they don’t even work as well as perfume. Perfume! Not even good perfume. Victoria’s Secret perfume!

You may read in places that the all-natural repellents actually attracted more mosquitos than the control, but that’s not true from a statistical perspective, which is the only perspective worth noting here. Besides, it’s bad enough that there was no statistical difference between all-natural products and nothing at all.

As for the perfume, it didn’t work nearly as well as DEET, but if for some reason you think that a chemical designed by a multi-million dollar underpants manufacturer is more “natural” than one made by a military industrial complex, I guess you can use that instead. Researchers think that it works by blocking the bugs from smelling your delicious human scent, which makes sense as that’s the entire reason perfume was invented in the first place.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the test involved a very high concentration of the perfume. To mimic it in the real world, you may have to literally bathe in the stuff. Judging by my experience in close proximity to people on public transportation on their way to work, that shouldn’t be a problem for many people. But it should be. Really.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. If all it takes to fool mosquitoes is to mask your scent then Axe body spray would be idea because you can’t put any of that shit on without smelling like a cross between a chemical factory and a garbage dump.

    I’m not sure mosquitoes are bad enough to want to smell like an Abercrombie & Fitch.

  2. Thank you for all the skeptic work you do, but I was a little disappointed that you failed to point out that there was one exception in the “natural” insect repellent category: the one containing Oil of lemon eucalyptus (30%) concentrated to contain 65% p-menthane-3-8-diol. This was found to have similar effectiveness to DEET but for a shorter duration. http://jinsectscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/15/1/140

    It would also be helpful to offer links with your articles.

  3. I only take issue with your assertion that perfumes doesn’t work “nearly as well” as DEET. The effect size was something like 75% of the effect size of DEET. That’s really not bad.

    One of the natural repellents didn’t work at ALL, too, doing worse than control.

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