Summer means longer days and warmer nights—and tha adds up to lots of extra time outdoors. Yet nothing ruins an evening run or backyard cookout quite like having mosquitoes buzzing around your bare skin. Not only do mosquito bites itch like crazy, but these little vampires can transmit serious diseases, like the West Nile and Zika viruses.
Since insect repellents are chock full of chemicals, you might be searching for a natural alternative. And sure enough, a quick Google search turns up all kinds of advice on foods you can consume—from garlic to apple cider vinegar to cayenne pepper and beyond—that supposedly alter your scent so you won’t be a skeeter magnet.
But here’s the thing. When we looked into the science behind these so-called mosquito-repelling foods, we couldn’t find any solid evidence that they actually worked. So we reached out to a couple of professional researchers. They gave side eye to these claims as well.
Stacy Rodriguez, a laboratory manager at New Mexico State University, has conducted extensive research on mosquitoes and repellent. She says that the only effective way to get rid of them is with bug spray containing at least one of two ingredients.
“Based on my research, we have established two active ingredients that work extremely well: oil of lemon eucalyptus and DEET,” she tells Health. “It is imperative that people check the active ingredients before they purchase a repellent. They should not be considered equal; in fact I have tested many repellents that have no effect at all.”
Joseph Conlon, technical advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association, says to think twice about using a food or other natural remedy, since any scientific proof of efficacy is “scant to nil.”
“In today’s era of the Zika virus, I would be professionally remiss in not urging people to use a mosquito repellent that has been registered with the Environmental Protection Association,” he explains to Health. This registration means that the active ingredient in the repellent offers at least two hours’ worth of protection.
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While mosquito repellent is what the experts advise, it’s not the only way to critter-proof yourself. Staying indoors, obviously, is a smart idea if you want to avoid bites—as is wearing long-sleeve shirts and long pants when you do go outside to prevent their stingers from penetrating your skin.
If you sweat a lot, consider working out indoors. Perspiration seems to be a mosquito magnet because it contains lactic acid, which attracts mosquitoes, Conlon previously told Health. And maybe skip the post-barbecue beer. Having beer in your system appears to also make you bug bait, suggests one small study done in West Africa and another study from Japan.
Pregnant women might also find that they attract more mosquitoes than usual—possibly because expectant moms emit more carbon dioxide, the gas that draws mosquitoes toward human and animal food sources. A 2002 study found that women who were pregnant attracted twice as many mosquitoes as did their non-pregnant counterparts.
Bottom line: If you want to bask in the great outdoors yet not find yourself beset by these bloodsuckers, pick up a repellent and follow the instructions as to the right way to use it. As for cutting garlic, cayenne pepper, and other food or “natural” items from your diet, the science just isn’t there to make this worth your while.