Are you, or anyone in your family, a mosquito magnet like me? In a group of people, I am always the first swatting; and the next day, itching like mad. I’ve twice—once, on my Hawaiian honeymoon—had to go on a crash course of oral steroids to treat dozens of oversized welts caused by a single buggy encounter.
Medical literature suggests that some people are genetically predisposed to attracting these mosquitos—something about the amount of heat and carbon dioxide we produce—and that seems to play out in our family, given that my dad, and now my youngest son, seem predisposed to an inordinate amount of itchy, oversized bites this time of year. But it’s now apparent that, even here in the states, these flies are more than pesky, and we all need to take protection more seriously. While findings of bugs carrying the West Nile virus are on the rise, Zika has officially infiltrated the U.S.: as of mid-July CDC reports that more than 1,300 people have carried the virus into the country. As this fascinating chart by the Bill Gates Foundation illustrates, mosquitos are the deadliest creature on the planet, more dangerous than humans, snakes, and 12 other fearsome creatures combined.
Last summer, I did a round-up of expert tips for steering clear of ticks; as we roll into mosquito high season, I’m sharing takeaways from the most recent research for keeping kids safe from ‘skeeters.
DEET is safe and works—but make sure you choose the right concentration.
While it may feel fishy to spray your child down with a chemical that can (for real) melt plastic, a recent review by British public health researchers echoed many others to show that DEET products are safe for kids when used as directed, and are perhaps the most time-tested way to successfully repel insects. Studies show that a product should contain at least 10% to work much at all, but effectiveness seems to plateau at 50% concentrations. The higher the concentration, the longer it lasts; but as with most chemicals, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends choosing a product that contains the lowest DEET concentration that will be effective for the amount a time a child will be exposed to buggy conditions. For children over 2 months of age only (chemical use on newborns should be avoided), the AAP and CDC recommend choosing a DEET product between 10% and 30%—the former lasting about 2 hours, and the latter for around 5 hours—and reapplying as the product directs or when you feel the bugs starting bite again. Unfortunately, many sprays marketed to “families” have too-low concentrations of the protective chemical. So be sure to check the fine print on the bottom of the front label: Among the four DEET-based bug spray options at my local supermarket yesterday, three were 7% concentration.
Good DEET spray choice for day trip (for kids over 2 months): Cutter Backwoods Insect Repellent (25%)
Good DEET choice for travel (for kids over 2 months): OFF! Deep Woods Insect Repellent Wipes (25%)
Good (non oily!) DEET spray choice for backyard or playground (for kids over 2 months):
Two lesser known repellents work too, if you can find ’em.
Picaridin is another chemical repellent with a long safety track record, and a 2016 Consumer Reports study found that sprays with 20% concentration of Picaridin were even more widely effective than DEET. The problem is, it’s hard to find products with concentrations this high outside of Europe and the Internet (see below). Another winner: Oil of lemon eucalyptus. Though a more natural choice than DEET and Picaridin, it’s not recommended for use in kids under 3 (it can be a skin irritant).
Good picaridin choice (for kids over 2 months): Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent with Picaridin (20%)
Good Oil of lemon eucalyptus choice (for kids over 3 only): Repel Lemon Eucalyptus (30%)
Skip bands, bracelets, bath oils, and candles.
Those cute little rubber bracelets and pretty citronella lanterns aren’t going to do more than decorate wrists and picnic tables. Consumer Reports found they had little to no effect on shooing away mosquitoes, echoing a 2002 New England Journal of Medicine report that also found that Skin-So-Soft didn’t repel the bugs for longer than about 10 minutes.
Make your home unfriendly to mosquitoes.
While these bugs are wily opponents, there are things you can do to make your property less hospitable to them. Make sure window and door screens are tight fitting and don’t have holes. Eliminate sources of standing rainwater where mosquitoes like to breed (such a empty pots, buckets, and vinyl covers for pool and furniture), and try a product like mosquito dunks if you have a catchment basin (like we do). You can talk to a professional lawn care company about research-proven treatments for your lawn and trees to dissuade mosquitoes, but these tend to be expensive, and, according to the American Mosquito Control Association, widespread pesticide spraying may harm other, beneficial insects.
Be aware of time of day and weather.
Mosquitoes that carry different types of diseases like to emerge at different times of day. In most areas of the U.S., mosquitoes tend to be peskiest in the early evening hours, but if you’re in a place where these bugs tend to cause dengue, yellow fever, or chikungunya, you need to be vigilant about spraying and keeping doors and windows closed during daylight hours, too. Also, be sure to use repellent in humid conditions; think the woods just after a rainstorm. To see what types of mosquitoes are active in your area, check out this map by the CDC. And regardless of time or climate, experts urge us parents to start thinking about bug spray just as we would sunscreen: an essential, daily habit. Unfortunately, scratchy legs aren’t the only things we’re protecting kids against these days.