Mosquitos are the party crashers of summer. Always showing up uninvited, harassing everyone, taking drinks without asking, and leaving a (splotchy, itchy) mess in their wake. Unfortunately, I’ve become something of a constant target for bites (apparently it’s something to do with a combination of genetics, my body’s CO2 release, and the way my skin releases cholesterol), which has led me to the belly of experimentation in terms of anti-bug tricks. A few recent trips to Caribbean where I managed to come home Chikungunya-free have cemented my knowledge, and now I’m here to share. Also, it’s all DEET-free if you’re into that. Here it goes:
First to mention are essential oils, which are not as hard to conquer as they may seem. You’re probably already familiar with citronella, but bugs also tend to stay away from clove, lemongrass, lavender, tea tree, eucalyptus, geranium, rosemary, mint, cedar, and catnip oils. Lemon-eucalyptus is actually recommended by the CDC as an effective natural alternative to DEET (but beware, some products that include it are made from a synthetic version of the oil). Soybean oil has also been shown to fight off bugs. To customize your own concoction, mix the oils into water or a carrier oil (almond or jojoba are good) and stick it all into a spray bottle for easy use. A good rule of thumb is two-to-three drops of oil for every teaspoon of liquid or about 30-50 drops in an 8-ounce bottle. I like mixing lemon-eucalyptus with rosemary and lavender, which is a concoction that smells so great, I don’t mind reapplying every two hours or so.
If you’d rather buy your repellant, I’ve found that Bite Blocker's All Natural DEET-Free Insect Repellentmade with soybean oil, geranium oil, and coconut oil (great for soothing bites if you already have some) works well. I am also a big fan of Zoe Organics' Insect Repellent, which has all the good stuff like geranium, rosemary, soybean oil, peppermint, lemongrass, clove, thyme and cedar wood, plus it comes in a pretty silver bottle that is more chic than your average bug spray.
Then there’s vitamin B1, my first line of defense against bug bites in the Caribbean. You have to start taking it a few weeks before you’re going to be around mosquitos (in other words, I’ll be taking it all summer). It has something called thiamine in it, which apparently has a smell that is offensive to the bugs. Bonus points for the fact that B1 is known for increasing immunity, enhancing mood and energy, and decreasing stress levels, among other things.
An oldie but goodie is Avon's Skin So Soft, the secret weapon of pretty much every Florida grandmother (including my own). It’s been rumored to keep bugs at bay, but the actual facts are inconclusive. I will say that I spent a good deal of my childhood doused in the stuff to a pretty positive effect. Capitalizing on the rumors, Avon has launched a whole line of actual bug repellent—definitely popular on its own and shown to be effective as well.
And then there are the less conventional methods…Some people swear by fabric softener dryer sheets (rub them over your skin or stick them in your pocket and you’re apparently all set), Vicks VapoRub (I find the scent of that stuff offensive, so it stands to reason that a mosquito would, too), and extreme garlic consumption. I’ll let you guys be the guinea pigs on that.
And when, inevitably, the bugs do bite, you want to be armed with the best remedies to prevent scratching (and the subsequent scarring). To return to the essential oils, tea tree and lavender are also good for treating bites after the fact. Try rubbing on some tea tree mixed with a bit of coconut oil.
Then there's what you already have in your medicine cabinet. When we were little, my aunt would put her super-astringent Clinique Clarifying Lotion on cotton swabs for my cousins and I to soothe our bug bites with. To this day, it’s still one of the best remedies that I’ve found. Alternatively, the mint flavor (from menthol ingredients) in toothpaste creates a cooling sensation and the astringency of toothpaste takes down swelling.
Moving on to the kitchen, ice is kind of a no-brainer. Put a few ice cubes on the bites for five-to-10 minutes to decease the body’s histamine release and constrict swollen blood vessels. Less obvious is meat tenderizer—I first learned about this after my mom suffered a major wasp sting, but it works for mosquito bites, too. Meat tenderizer contains an enzyme called papain that breaks down what creates stinging and itching effects, and it's the fastest way to heal a severe sting or bite. Mix a little with water, rub the paste on the area, and let it sit for a few minutes.
Honey, milk, and tea are all said to provide some respite from itching (and swelling to an extent). The toner of the pantry, apple cider vinegar is my go-to remedy for pretty much everything (I put it on blemishes and cuts as well as take shots of it every morning). You can put a little bit directly on the bite to reduce itching and speed up healing, or if you’re covered in the bites, add two to three cups to a warm bath and soak in it.
Photographed by Tom Newton.