A Moment of Science

Mosquito Repellants–How They Work, and Are They Safe?

During the months of summer no trip outdoors seems complete without some form of mosquito repellent. It’s not just that these pesky creatures are a nuisance, but you know that mosquitoes can carry dangerous diseases, so you want to protect yourself. However, once you’ve covered every exposed surface of your body in bug spray, you might ask yourself, just how does this stuff work and if mosquitoes don’t like it, what is it doing to my body?

First off, it’s necessary to understand how the mosquito finds you. What turns the mosquito on are goodies like carbon dioxide, heat, moisture, and lactic acid, which is secreted in sweat. These four elements make our bodies prime targets for the mosquito’s bite. The mosquito has sensory hairs on her antennae that allow her to detect these elements, so that she may fly in their direction. If she detects a decline in the concentration of carbon dioxide, heat, and moisture, she will turn around and conduct her feasting elsewhere.

Here’s where mosquito repellents come in. The most effective repellents are those composed of heavy, irregular shaped molecules–molecules that block the mosquito’s sensory hairs, so that she cannot detect the carbon dioxide, heat, and moisture she is looking for. She is tricked into going away.

The most effective mosquito repellents on the market are those containing n,n-diethyl-meta-toluamide, commonly referred to as DEET. Used properly, this chemical can offer almost 100% protection from mosquitoes. It has been reported toxic to a small number of people, but if used according to directions, it’s relatively safe. It certainly beats catching a disease from a mosquito.

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