With the global pandemic keeping many of us indoors for extended stretches, outdoor excursions have started to feel more like therapy than leisure. Whether you’re by the beach, camping, or in your backyard, not much can disrupt a late-summer idyll quite like a mosquito buzzing incessantly in your ear.
Mosquitoes are, of course, dangerous too, carrying diseases like Zika, West Nile virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of vector-borne diseases, which include those transmitted by mosquitoes, more than tripled in the United States between 2004 and 2016. They also note that the vast majority of vector control organizations “lack critical prevention and control capacities.” In other words, you’re on your own.
Thankfully, there are now more options to handle mosquitoes than just covering yourself head to toe with a smelly DEET-based repellent. I’ve been covering bug and mosquito control products for Wirecutter (The New York Times Company that reviews and recommends products) for over two years, interviewing researchers, academics and manufacturers along the way. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the phone with the American Mosquito Control Association and I’ve tested dozens of mosquito-related products — some successful, some not. Here are a few that I’ve found to be effective.
Spray repellents have a reputation for being oily and smelly. Fortunately, there are options that are neither. When spending time outside, whether in the woods or for a walk around the park, we recommend Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent (starts at about $7 a bottle). This EPA-approved product has a 20 percent concentration of picaridin, a chemical ingredient that provides protection from mosquitoes and ticks for up to 12 hours. It’s as effective as the notoriously strong-smelling DEET, but comes with none of the downsides: picaridin is mostly odorless, doesn’t have an overly slick feel, and won’t damage plastics and synthetic fabrics, like sunglasses, rayon and spandex.
Any repellent with a 20 percent concentration of picaridin should have similar effectiveness, but Sawyer stood out from the pack thanks to to its nice, even spray, double safety cap, wide range of available sizes, and decent availability at many major retailers.
Spatial repellents are for times when coating your skin in a spray isn’t practical. Maybe you just want to eat dinner on the porch or enjoy a little fresh air on the patio before turning in for the night. These devices work by emitting a small amount of repellent into the air, creating an area, usually about 10 feet by 10 feet, protected from mosquitoes. Our favorite is the Thermacell Radius Gen 2.0 (about $50).
Unlike other spatial repellents, the Radius is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery (most others use a small butane canister). The machine, about the size of a cellphone, heats up a replaceable repellent cartridge, dispersing the odorless vapor out of the top of the unit. The whole thing is so unimposing that it’s easy to forget about it and leave it on — which is why we like the timer setting that automatically shuts it off after 120 minutes.
The downside of the Radius, and all other spatial repellents, is that a breeze will blow the repellent away, reducing its effectiveness. Repellent cartridges are available in 12-hour and 40-hour sizes.
For a budget version of a spatial repellent, we like the Pic Mosquito Coils (10-pack for about $10). They’re much less expensive than the Thermacell Radius, but they do come with additional downsides. Each one is a green coil, about the size of a drink coaster, that sets up on a little stand, elevating it above the table surface. When the end is lit, the coil slowly burns down like a stick of incense. As it smolders, it releases a repellent containing a pyrethroid into the air.
Unlike with the Radius, the smoke is visible and it has an odor. Each coil lasts about seven hours and, like other spatial repellents, it loses effectiveness in a breeze. The Pic coils don’t come with an ashtray, so you’ll have to set it on your own plate to keep the ash off the tabletop. Because of the smoking ember, the Pic coils also require careful monitoring, given the potential fire hazard. Even with these drawbacks, it’s a low-cost, fairly simple way to keep mosquitoes at bay.
Permethrin Clothing Treatment
If you’re looking for protection from mosquitoes as well as ticks, treat your clothing and gear — but not your skin — with a permethrin-based formula. Ticks, like mosquitoes, can transmit a number of debilitating diseases such as Lyme and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Permethrin protects tents, shoes, backpacks and clothes for up to six weeks, or through about six washings. As with the spray repellents, the most important part is to get a product with 0.5 percent permethrin. Our favorite is the Sawyer insect repellent (starts at about $8 a bottle).
To treat an item, you have to really soak it, so a bottle of spray can get used up pretty quickly. According to Sawyer, a 12-ounce bottle can treat four garments. At that rate, it’s impractical to treat an entire wardrobe, but it’s worth treating any items you consistently wear in the outdoors. Also pay attention to whatever shoes or boots you wear regularly while hiking. One study showed that those who wore permethrin treated shoes and socks were about 74 percent less likely to get a tick bite.
One very important thing about permethrin: When it’s wet, it is very toxic to cats, so keep the felines away when you’re spraying clothing and gear. Once it’s dried, it’s fine.
A Simple Fan
One of the easiest ways to deter mosquitoes if you’ll be in a mostly stationary spot (like a backyard patio) is with a simple fan. Mosquitoes have flimsy little wings and aren’t very strong fliers, so creating a stiff breeze is often enough to keep them away. Any fan will do (we like the Vornado 630 Medium Air Circulator).
The advice from experts: Keep the fan pointed low, because the mosquito that carries Zika (Aedes aegypti) prefers to bite the lower extremities.