Mosquito Deterrents: The Good, the Bad and the Potentially Effective

With Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses on the rise, researchers are looking for the next best way to keep the bugs from biting

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CDC/PHIL/Corbis

There’s not much that's good about mosquitoes. The itch-inducing little suckers kill about 725,000 people a year worldwide through the diseases they transmit: malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, encephalitis, chikungunya, and West Nile virus, just to name a few. Now, with news that the mosquito-borne Zika virus may be causing an epidemic of severe birth defects across South America, Central America and the Caribbean, there’s been an increased focus on mosquito control. Here, we’re highlighting some of the most interesting anti-mosquito innovations of the past few years, some more effective than others. 

Insecticide Paint

Typical civic mosquito control involves spraying clouds of insecticides around buildings. But this spraying (or “fogging,” as it’s called in parts of Southeast Asia) must be repeated regularly. What if the insecticide could actually be embedded in house paint? That’s the idea behind a newly invented anti-mosquito paint from Malaysia. The product involves mixing paint with deltamethrin, a common insecticide, which disrupts mosquitoes’ nervous systems. Trials have been promising—the company claims the paint repels mosquitoes for up to two years—and the final formulation of the paint is set to hit the market soon. 

Mosquito-repellent Bracelets

In recent years, a number of companies have begun hawking mosquito-repellent bracelets and bands. Rather than spraying yourself all over with smelly bug spray, you can simply slip on a bracelet or anklet permeated with anti-mosquito compounds, they say. Some of the bracelets involve traditional insecticides, such as DEET. Others opt for a more “natural” approach: Para Kito is a colorful neoprene band with a pellet of essential oils, while MosquitNo bracelets contain citronella. Results have been mixed, with experts saying traditional spray is still more effective. 

Mosquito Traps That Release Carbon Dioxide

Mosquitoes are attracted to humans by the smell of the carbon dioxide we exhale. This is the principle behind carbon-dioxide-releasing mosquito traps, which emit carbon dioxide and sometimes other compounds found in human breath to draw in mosquitoes, then kill them with electricity or trap them in a chamber. The traps are designed to be placed in yards, with the claim they’ll rid the area of mosquitoes. But how effective they are is still unclear. Though the traps do catch some mosquitoes, they do not necessarily reduce the number of bites received by people in the vicinity.

Mosquito-deterring Apps

We know that female mosquitoes find their mates by listening for wing beat frequency. Once a female mosquito has mated, she wants to eat, and she is not interested in being near male mosquitoes. This has led some to conclude that replicating the frequency of mosquito wing beats might deter female mosquitoes (the only ones that bite). A plethora of ultrasonic devices, from phone apps to stroller clip-ons to key chains claim to keep the bugs from biting. The only problem? They don’t work. Research has roundly dismissed the idea that ultrasonic devices influence mosquito behavior at all. You’re better off using your cell phone to smash mozzies instead. 

Human Invisibility Patches

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(C.J. Burton/Corbis )

While there are plenty of insecticide-embedded wearable patches on the market, a new kind of patch claims to actually make humans invisible to mosquitoes by blocking the mosquitoes’ ability to smell the carbon dioxide we release in our breath. The Kite Patch, developed with research from the University of California, Riverside, uses a proprietary mix of compounds to confuse the mosquitoes. It’s still pending approval, but some early testers have found it highly effective. 

Street Lamp Mosquito Traps

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(Louis Moses/Corbis)

Researchers at the University of Malaysia have developed street lamps that lure mosquitoes by mimicking human breath, releasing carbon dioxide, titanium dioxide and ultraviolet light. When the mosquitoes flock to the light for a snack, they are sucked inside by a fan and trapped. The solution could prove especially useful in the developing world, where both lack of light and rampant mosquito-borne diseases are problems. 

Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

Researchers have long been looking into the possibility of genetically modifying mosquitoes to prevent the spread of disease. Some models involve releasing mosquitoes that can spread genetic infertility, thus causing populations to die out. Others involve editing the mosquito genome to prevent it from carrying specific diseases. A University of California experiment showed that releasing mosquitoes incapable of carrying malaria could eventually make 99.5 percent of their surrounding population resistant as well through interbreeding. A recent World Health Organization report suggested using genetically modified mosquitoes could be an important tool in fighting Zika.