The Zika virus spreads primarily by mosquito bites, so the best way to avoid getting it is to make yourself as repellent to mosquitoes as possible.
Related post: What attracts mosquitoes?
Unfortunately, there are companies that hope to make money off fear of the Zika virus and are selling mosquito-repellent products that just don’t work.
Most concerning to experts is the promotion of many “natural” mosquito repellents — sprays, wristbands, and patches that are touted as alternatives to the products containing synthetic chemicals known to be safe and effective at keeping mosquitoes away.
While mosquitoes in this country are usually just a seasonal annoyance, those that carry diseases like the Zika virus, the West Nile virus, malaria, chikungunya, yellow fever or dengue fever can cause serious illness or even death.
Don’t waste time and money on products that haven’t been tested and proved to be effective.
Mosquito repellents – What works?
There are four chemicals on the market that make up most of the available bug repellents. Always read the labels to know what the active ingredients are!
DEET is considered the gold standard. To repel mosquitoes and ticks, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends using a product with at least 20% DEET. Higher concentrations provide longer protection. If you only need coverage for a few hours in the morning or evening, there are many products with around a 25-40% concentration.
However, concentrations lower than 100% contain more alcohol, which increases skin irritation and absorption of DEET.
DEET has been on the market since 1957. The EPA (the agency that regulates insecticides) considers DEET to be of “low acute toxicity” and believes that “the normal use of DEET does not present a health concern to the general U.S. population.”
The EPA also classifies DEET as a Group D carcinogen; that is, it does not cause cancer.
There have been some very rare reports of neurological problems related to DEET, associated with long-term use and misuse of the product (such as swallowing it). But the most common side effect is skin irritation, especially if it gets in the eyes. Apply carefully. Oh, and it smells bad and stains clothing.
The EPA estimates adverse reactions at around 1 in 100 million persons. In my opinion, that’s pretty safe.
DEET products are readily available and inexpensive.
A couple years ago I was on vacation in Belize and Guatemala. I used my DEET while friends insisted on using sprays with “natural” ingredients like rosemary and citronella. Within two days they were begging me for my DEET, and I had significantly fewer bites than they did.
This chemical is another effective bug repellent, although the CDC recommends it only for mosquitoes, not ticks. It’s been used in the US since 2005 and is also considered by the EPA to be of “relatively low acute toxicity.”
A concentration of 20% lasts for up to 8 hours and is as effective as a 30% concentration of DEET. It also doesn’t smell, irritate your eyes and skin, or dissolve plastics.
It costs about the same as DEET and is available in many products.
IR3535 and oil of lemon eucalyptus
Both of these bug repellents have really long chemical names, but they are plant-based oils and therefore not regulated by the EPA or the FDA.
Labels for these bug repellents often use the phrase “botanicals,” “organic” or “all natural.”
IR3535 is found in the Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard line of products.
Oil of lemon eucalyptus can be very irritating to the skin and eyes, and it isn’t recommended for children younger than 3.
If you only want casual protection against an occasional mosquito, these will offer some protection. Aggressive or disease-carrying insects? I wouldn’t risk it. Neither has been found to be as effective as DEET or picaridin.
And the trendy wrists bands or stickers infused with the oil of lemon eucalyptus? The chemical simply can’t surround your body and provide adequate protection. Again, I just wouldn’t risk it.
Another thing to keep in mind, don’t use a combined sunscreen/bug repellent. Bug repellent should be applied once a day; sunscreen needs to be applied several times a day.
If you are using sunscreen, apply it first.
Be prepared for the Zika virus if you travel
So far, the only cases of Zika in the US have been in people who contracted the virus while traveling to Central or South America, or to one of the US territories (Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the US Virgin Islands).
Planning to travel to a Zika zone? The CDC has an informative and frequently updated page dedicated to the Zika virus—which countries are affected, more tips on how to protect yourself, and how the US is preparing to handle outbreaks in this country.
Know before you go 😎
Effective mosquito repellents: