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Bug Repellent: Dazed and Confused
Before you spend time out in the wild, learn more about the ways you can shield against bug bites—and why some repellents work better than others.
Nature is filled with blood-sucking critters, chief among them the tiny, flying debt collectors we call mosquitoes. One of the most effective defenses against skeeters, a chemical known as DEET, was developed—appropriately enough—by the US military in 1946, which released it for civilian use just over a decade later. In the years since, people have never really understood what makes bug repellent work—like most backwoods remedies, it simply works. Scientists, for their part, have long assumed the pungent odor of DEET offended mosquitoes—or perhaps dulled their sense of smell—but recently, researchers may have figured out why DEET ruins mosquitoes’ snack time. Put simply: it scrambles their tiny brains.
Mosquitoes, like many insects, smell by using several tiny receptors on the ends of their antennae. These powerful receptors can detect everything from the carbon dioxide in humans’ breath to the lactic acid in their sweat, homing in on a fresh meal from as far as 100 feet away. But DEET, as researchers at The Rockefeller University found, seems to jam certain receptors, causing them to mistakenly ignore specific scents. In other words, it’s not that a mosquito doesn’t like you—it’s that she doesn’t even know you exist. Bummer.
Though DEET is the most popular form of bug spray, at least in the United States, it’s not the only effective repellent out there. Others include Picaridin and IR3535, both popular choices with Europeans. Along with DEET, the EPA considers these chemicals safe to use, though EPA approval doesn’t always mean a product is effective. When you’re picking a repellent, make sure its label says EPA registered—not simply approved—to ensure it’s been tested for efficacy. No matter which formula you choose, repellent only works when it covers all of your exposed skin, since mosquitoes and ticks can sniff out an open patch even when it’s surrounded by a field of DEET—which is also why citronella candles, for example, often don’t seem to work very well.
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