Bite Me, Summer Edition: Not To Be A Buzzkill, But Natural Bug Repellents Are Pretty Useless
If you reside in a coastal Florida city, chances are you hear the spray planes hovering over your home way too early in the morning. And have you noticed how dining al fresco is no fun because you spend half your time swatting mosquitos? More ominously, perhaps your Facebook feed, like mine, includes warnings from your local Mosquito Control District about how intense our current problem is.
Just in time for summer, you need to know this not-so-fun fact: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while you can wear mosquito repellent and sunscreen, it’s best to layer the products separately, applying sunscreen first, repellent after.
And how's this for a plot twist? Your sunscreen's effectiveness may be reduced by as a much as one-third if you layer repellent over it.
With all this dire intel coming at us, we felt it was time, dear readers, to revisit Bite Me, our seasonal report about the horrifying-winged pests that make living in Florida challenging at best and dangerous at worst.
For answers to all of our questions, I found a great resource while getting my daily New York Social Diary fix. Luckily for me, the subject of the website's luncheon du jour was Rockefeller University's 20th Annual Women & Science Spring Lecture, featuring mosquito expert Dr. Leslie Vosshall, Ph.D, whose impressive and official title is Robin Chemers Neustein Professor, Head of the Laboratory of Neurogenics and Behavior, and Director of the Kavli Neural Systems Institute at The Rockefeller University. She is also Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
In short, Dr. Vosshall is a world-renowned expert in olfaction (the sense of smell), who is a pioneer in genetic research to combat Zika and other infectious diseases transmitted by mosquitos. She also heads the eponymous Vosshall Laboratory at Rockefeller University.
If you have 40 minutes, Dr. Vosshall’s luncheon presentation is available on YouTube (thank you David Patrick Columbia); if you live in - or plan a visit to - Miami-Dade county, it’s required viewing.
And if you haven’t read Bite Me’s Winter Edition (you should, as most of the information is still current), we've expanded upon those earlier concerns in this chat:
FBP: Dawn and dusk are terrible, but mosquitos don't seem to take a siesta this time of year, turning the entire day into a biting frenzy. Or is that just my vivid, bite-obsessed imagination?
DR VOSSHALL: Aedes albopictus, the Asian Tiger Mosquito, is the one that is now bothering people during the day. So no, not your imagination.
FBP: Does eating certain foods make you more susceptible to bites? Dana believes bananas and other foods may contribute to the problem.
DR. VOSSHALL: There is lots of folklore — and no scientific evidence for or against this statement. People tell me all the time that they swear that various foods make them more or less attractive to mosquitoes. In addition to the banana idea, I have heard sugar, garlic, vitamin B. These are just folk stories, and there is nothing scientific to back them up.
(NOTE FROM DANA: I love a good folk story, so I'm sticking by mine about bananas making me more delicious to bugs. My tennis-broad pals + I like to stay as bite-free + gorge as possible.)
FBP: How do you define "herbal" repellents - per that slide in your presentation on New York Social Diary?
DR. VOSSHALL: Any insect repellent that is not based on DEET or picaridin.
FBP: Which plants are helpful, e.g., citronella, mint, lemongrass?
DR. VOSHALL: None of these is an effective repellent.
(As an add-on to that: While golf-carting to and fro a party on my little island, I recently tried Country House Product's Jamaica-made Lemongrass Mosquito Repellent Spray, given to me by Janet Clarke, manager of Half Moon's Fern Tree Spa. Alas, it was ineffective both against the bites (15!) and the loose pitbull chasing me during my drive.)
FBP: If you were traveling to Florida and could only bring one preventive spray, what would it be?
DR. VOSSHALL: 25% DEET
FBP: What percentage of DEET renders a product effective? I was recently in Jamaica, and the spray provided only had 4% as opposed to my Deep-Woods Off with 30%.
DR. VOSSHALL: 25% DEET
FBP: Any DEET drawbacks you'd care to share?
DR. VOSSHALL: DEET has been in active use since World War II and is completely safe.
FBP: Do you prefer Picaridin?
DR. VOSSHALL: DEET is better than picaridin.
FBP: Zika isn't on our tellies as often as last summer. Has the problem increased/decreased, remained the same?
DR. VOSSHALL: Zika is still in Florida, even if it has fallen off the front page. Here are the numbers for 2017 so far. Locally acquired means that there are mosquitos still spreading the virus among people in Florida. Travel-related cases are people infected elsewhere who realize they are sick once in Florida. Last year the peak infections were in September - November, so these numbers are likely to rise:
-Travel-Related Infections of Zika 2017: 50
-Locally Acquired Infections of Zika 2017: 4
-Undetermined exposed 2016, tested 2017: 10
-Pregnant Women with Lab-Evidence of Zika 2017: 42
FBP: And on that note, we'd like to wrap-up this chat with our own words of advice: Protect yourself before you step one foot outdoors + try to hang with pals more delish to mosquitos than you. There's a mosquito-magnet in every bunch. Also, Dana thinks DEET is super-scary.