Little biters: why most insect repellents are ineffective

Mosquito - most insect repellents don't seem to work on them!

Have you found any insect repellents that unfailingly work for you? Because I haven’t.

Avoiding bites is my single biggest and most frustrating travel challenge. I should add that it’s also a thing in my home base country, New Zealand. Sandflies are so troublesome in some regions that, with typical Kiwi humour, they are celebrated.

Golden orb weaver spider

Mosquitoes, sandflies, fleas, all seem to see me as the equivalent of [insert your all-time favourite food here].

I’m pleased to say I haven’t encountered bed bugs so far, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time as they seem to be on the increase.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like insects in general; they perform vital functions in our ecosystem. I didn’t mind the humongous spiders that used to pay the occasional surprise visit to our bathroom in Vanuatu, nor the rather large golden orb spider that visited our friends’ garden in Queensland (see photo).

But insects that sting, bite or suck upon my person, for no reason other than their own gourmet tastes, are fair targets for assassination as far as I’m concerned. Apart from the 4 days of chronic itching misery they inflict upon me, they can also pass on such delights as malaria, dengue fever, Ross River virus – and the list goes on.

What the experts say

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advise that remedies containing the following active ingredients work best: DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, p-Menthane-3,8-diol (which is in oil of lemon eucalyptus), IR3535 and 2-Undecanone. DEET tends to be the favourite among intrepid travellers, but not everyone likes the smell.

Trouble is, I’ve yet to find the right bug spray for me. Most of the ones I’ve tried have had no effect at all, including the more advanced organic, ‘natural’ and ‘eco-friendly’ versions. I’ve never found them to be particularly effective. Having sensitive skin means that I’m fussy about what I put on it, particularly since it goes into the bloodstream too.

Here are some of the other pieces of advice I’ve been given over the years, with (mostly unsatisfactory) results:

Don’t get bitten in the first place

Of all the recommendations I’ve been given, this one – listed in a ‘how to avoid malaria’ publication – is probably the most useless I’ve ever received. I can’t argue with the logic of it, but – really. Talk about stating the bleedin’ (literally) obvious!

How about a citronella or eucalyptus candle?

Tried them, loved the aroma. So did mozzies, who continued to love me. Nice, but ineffective.

Avoid wearing perfume or scented creams

Likewise, this had no effect whatsoever. The mozzies love me whether or not I’m wearing my Chanel.

Mosquitoes go for people who are short of certain vitamins

Large model sandfly above a cafe in Pukekura, New Zealand. You definitely need insect repellents when going anywhere with sandflies!
Sandfly over a cafe in Pukekura, NZ – typical Kiwi humour

I was excited when I heard this theory. It sounded plausible, and I thought it might be the key to my problem. So  I decided to put myself on a course of multivitamins a couple of months before my subsequent trip. It made no difference at all to my attractiveness to the little biters, but hey, it probably improved their health.

Wear dark clothes

This just made it easier for the mozzies to crawl about my person undetected and bite me without being seen.


Yep, that’ll help. I’m sure. Help them find me all the more easily. Honestly, they don’t seem to care what I’m wearing. They just smell my blood and go for it. Even long skirts don’t seem to stop them from finding my legs.

Mosquitoes are only active at night

This is total baloney. They get me at all times of the day. I once stepped off a plane in Nice, mid-afternoon, and was besieged within half an hour. News travels fast in mozzie lands. 

Try a mosquito net soaked with DEET

Now I’m sure this works, unless you have to slip out to visit the bathroom during the night. But it seems a little over the top to take one of these to your nice hotel. Different if you’re camping or glamping.

Eat more garlic

Sounds like an old wives’ tale, right? What’s more, she was kidding. I put garlic in everything anyhow, so I must confess I didn’t have much hope for this one.

So what does work?

So far, there are only two solutions that have partially worked for me: plug-in insect repellents, and covering up my arms and legs. The latter is usually effective despite the fact that I’ve been told that mozzies can bite you through your clothing. This might be technically true, but it hasn’t happened to me so far. It’s a pain to have to cover up on a warm balmy night in a tropical place, mind you. Still, I’d rather have that inconvenience than get bitten.

Plug-ins are by far the most effective method I’ve tried so far, and a real life-saver for being able to sleep at night without the fear of that dreaded high-pitched whine around my ears. The one I’m using currently is the Mortein mozzie zapper. I’m sure there are similar products available in other countries. Others I’ve heard of recently, but have not yet tried, are a lamp that uses electric shock technology, and a zapper that uses ultrasound.

If anyone has tried these, or found a better solution, I’d love to hear from you.

Mozzie-free locations

Happily, there are destinations offering mozzie-free bliss for those of us who attract the little blighters, either because of their geography or because of local eradication measures. Iceland and Antarctica are too cold for them.

The southern French town of Marseillan is largely mosquito-free thanks to local efforts to eradicate them. Even more intensive work is in progress at the Maldives resort of Soneva Fushi. The owners have been working with a German biotech company to develop ecologically-friendly traps that smell like humans! The project’s success is not only benefitting visitors, but the island’s plants and animals. How cool is that!

Travel insurance

Unless you’re lucky enough to be going to any of these destinations, travel insurance is a must, to cover you for the more unpleasant outcomes of stings, bites and pathogens. (Read more in my post on travel insurance if you need convincing).

© Coconut Lands. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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    1. Very true. Queensland has more creepy-crawlies than anywhere else I’ve been, with the possible exception of Vanuatu. What’s more, everything is super-sized – the spiders, the ants, the flies, the cockroaches. And on top of all that you have snakes to look out for! Like you I’m a bit allergic to bites and stings so have similar problems. Groan. Someone has suggested wrist bands, which I’m going to look into.

  1. Nothing works for me too. Except long clothes. Mosquitos esp love me. I always have a terrible reaction to their bites too. Guess we are destined to suffer.

  2. I think they just love the English blood as I always get bitten. I’ve tried everything too but the only thing that works for me to soak myself in the insect repellent with the highest amount of Deet. Dread to think the harm it does to my body though. I only use it in places like Bali with diseases like Dengue Fever. Even tried the red cordial 🤣

  3. I always get insect repellent for going on holiday and 100% of the time it never works lol I remember a sales person in a shop once said to me “if it doesn’t work just stay away from the insects”… Really?! I’ve yet to try plug in replants so I’ll have to try them, I’ve been bitten through clothes before and it was AGONY! I’m sure the insect got in my jeans some how.

    Jordanne //

    1. Ha! Yes, there’s no shortage of sensible (and useless) advice on this! Insects in your jeans sounds like hell, a bit like the fabled ants in your pants – aargh!

  4. I have yet to find a solution for bug bites. I’m beginning to think there is no solution to stop these pests. I may try the plug-ins. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks so much Andrea, yes it’s a real pain. I once holidayed in a lovely town called Marseillan in France (must do a post!) where the authorities spray regularly to get rid of mosquitoes. Although other biters got me once or twice, it was such heaven to be without mozzies for a whole week!

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