The best way to defend yourself against mosquito bites and mosquito borne diseases on your gap year is to use an effective mosquito repellent, but the problem is there is a lot of misinformation and confusion amongst travellers about which ones to use, or even which ones are effective or safe. This article attempts to debunk some of the most prevalent myths and misinformation about using an insect repellent on your gap year.
Using an insect repellent is the single best way to protect yourself from being bitten by mosquitoes on your gap year, a fact that is even more important for travellers heading to regions where mosquito borne diseases such as malaria, dengue or zika are prevalent.
But with so much misinformation and so many erroneous myths out there, many travellers are getting the wrong advice and putting themselves at risk unnecessarily. So what are the most common myths about mosquito repellents?
Any repellent works as well as any other.
There are so many repellents out there with a wide variety of ingredients, from homeopathic remedies to ‘natural’ repellents with anything from lemon juice to garlic water and any number of other concoctions.
The truth is there are only four ingredients that are clinically proven, approved and recommended for use in areas where mosquito borne diseases are a risk. DEET, a chemical based repellent, Icaridin which is a synthetic molecule based on a natural chemical, IR3535 which is a synthetic amino acid, and PMD, which is a natural product of the distillation process of the leaves of the Lemon scented gum tree.
Anything else doesn’t work, isn’t effective, and is not approved or recommended in areas where mosquitoes are a risk factor, and that includes all homeopathic remedies, lemon oil, garlic infused water or anything else. If the repellent doesn’t have one of those four ingredients, it is useless.
And even amongst the four recommended ingredients some are better than others. DEET is still considered the gold standard, but Icaridin is close behind it as a (synthetic) natural alternative. The only problem with Icaridin is that it does not last as long as DEET at the same percentage so needs to be reapplied more regularly. This is a good compromise many people are happy with however.
Furthermore IR3535 is not recommended for areas at risk of malaria as it is not effective against anopheles mosquitoes, the ones that carry malaria.
So no, not all repellents are equal.
“There are only four ingredients that are clinically proven, approved and recommended for use in areas where mosquito borne diseases are a risk. DEET, Icaridin, IR3535 and PMD. Any other repellent which does not have these ingredients does not work, is not effective, and is not approved or recommended in areas where mosquitoes and mosquito borne diseases are a risk factor.”
Chemical repellents are toxic or dangerous.
No they aren’t. DEET is the primary chemical mosquito repellent recommended for use against mosquitoes and is absolutely safe as long as it is used as directed. And the synthetic natural repellents IR3535 and Icaridin can be counted in this as well. There have been some reports in the past of DEET having damaged plastic or clothing, but if this has happened then it is likely to have been at a very high percentage of 90% or above. The recommended strength is between 20 and 50% DEET only.
In fact, there is very limited clinical evidence showing any adverse or negative affects of using DEET at all, and it is the only repellent that is recommended in babies above two months old (the comparative natural alternative PMD Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is only recommended in toddlers above 3 years old due to lack of clinical evidence on safety) and also in pregnant women. That is how safe it is.
Most of this myth stems from the fact that some people just don’t like the idea of a chemical on their skin, or the smell or feel of DEET, which is fair enough, but that is a far cry from saying that it is toxic or dangerous just because it is a chemical.
Homeopathic remedies are safe and a better alternative to chemical repellents.
No they aren’t, they just don’t work. They may be safe in the fact that they may not cause you harm, but they aren’t any use either. You may as well be coating yourself in air as far as the mosquitoes are concerned.
So ignore the claims of the homeopathic or ‘natural’ product industry, repellents that contain lemon, citronella, peppermint or melaleuca oils or anything else are clinically proven to not be effective. Even in cases where some of these ingredients may contain some mosquito repellent properties naturally, it is usually in such low doses that you would literally have to bathe in the stuff every few minutes for it to be effective.
So don’t bother with any of them, I don’t care what claims the label makes about being a ‘safe natural alternative to DEET’.
In the case of the synthetic natural products that are recommended, IR3535 and Icaridin, IR3535 is effective, but not as good as Icaridin or DEET, and Icaridin is as effective as DEET but needs to be reapplied more regularly as it does not last as long, and the same is true for PMD too.
Certain food, drinks or vitamins work just as well as any repellent.
This is one of those persistently annoying myths that just will not die.
I hear so many travellers saying that they don’t need to use any repellent because they have eaten garlic, onions, taken vitamins B1 or B12, or are drinking banana juice or any local concoction.
The fact is there is no food, no supplement or no drink that will repel mosquitoes. So unless you want to take the half baked word of a friend of a friend’s second cousin twice removed who says it worked for them, over years of clinical research and data, don’t bother.
The higher the dose the fewer the mosquitoes.
This is quite a common belief but so many travellers think that the higher the concentration the stronger the repellent and therefore the better it is in repelling mosquitoes and vice versa.
It is an easy mistake to make and it is easy to see why people think that, however it isn’t wholly accurate.
The percentage of mosquito repellent doesn’t refer to its strength or concentration, each concentration will be as effective as the next, it refers to how long it will remain effective for and how often you will need to reapply it.
So taking DEET for example, a 20% concentration will need to be reapplied every 1 to 3 hours, a 30% concentration can last up to 6 hours, whilst a 50% concentration can technically last up to 12 hours, although the official advice is still to reapply it every 6 to 8 hours in general.
You don’t need repellent if you are using bite avoidance measures.
Many travellers think that if they are using other mosquito bite avoidance measures they don’t need to bother with repellent at all, and this just isn’t true.
There are a number of bite avoidance measures that are very effective at keeping you safe from mosquito bites, from sleeping under a mosquito net to wearing permethrin treated clothing and even covering up exposed skin with long sleeved T shirts and other appropriate clothing.
But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use repellent as well.
The best way to think about it is imagine all of these techniques as wearing protective armour. If you were going into battle you wouldn’t just put on the soft underlayers, you’d cover yourself in the kevlar body armour, put on the helmet and then stand behind the bullet proof shield! The same is true for bite avoidance measures and repellents. The more layers you have, the better.
But this myth is made even worse when travellers think it is true but rely on products and gimmicks that aren’t even effective in the first place!
You can buy a ton of so called repellents, from ultrasonic plug in devices, traps, smartphone apps and many more, but the clinical evidence just does not back up their claims that they work. Even those mosquito repellent bands are completely ineffective! So if you are relying on any of these things alone, frankly you are putting yourself at risk of being bitten.
So how do you tell fact from fiction and make sure you get the right advice? It is important to check out the right, official resources such as those from the World Health Organisation, the CDC, the NHS’s own Fit For Travel or the Travel Health Pro Website , or even the Bug Off Campaign from the London School Of Hygiene And Tropical Medicine. Get the right knowledge from the right sources and do not let uninformed opinion dictate what you do.
Using the right mosquito repellent and using it effectively will seriously reduce your risk of being bitten by mosquitoes and as a result your chances of developing a mosquito borne disease too, and if you get this right from the start, you can protect yourself well and just get on with the actual task of enjoying your trip with peace of mind.
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