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Bite Me: Insect Repellents That Really Work

By Amalah

Bug Repellents That Really Work

Hi Amy,

So about this time of year, every year, I start to look like a leper. Why? Because apparently I was put on this earth to be a mosquito buffet. I’m not kidding — every time I go outside, I put on bug spray (I’m on my third different kind so far), and yet I still get eaten alive. Right now I have 22 bites below my knees that I can count. (It’s been like this my whole life — I remember going to sleepaway camp as a kid and coming home with more than 100 bites.)

What makes it worse is that for some reason, mosquito bites turn into almost small hives on me. They swell up larger than on most people, and usually scab over within a day or two (whether or not I scratch them). Tasty, right?

refuse to give up time outside — I like running, walking my dog twice a day, and I walk to and from work. I usually wear capris or knee-length skirts because, you know, it’s 90 degrees in DC. I’m not rolling around in grass, and I’m never just lounging around outside. So, two questions for you (and any wise readers):

1. What are your favorite mosquito-repellant techniques? Tell me your strongest bug repellant. Point me to your secret full-strength DEET supplier. I’m begging here.

2. Can I still wear skirts given my leper-like legs? Should I only try to wear long skirts and pants that cover up my bites? Is it worth trying to camouflage them with a foundation or something, or will that just look ridiculous?
Thanks for any help. In the meantime, I’ll be counting down the days until the first frost.


Oh, my, GOD, do I feel your pain. I, too, am apparently extra-tasty-delicious to mosquitoes, and I’m also more “allergic” to the bites than your average bear. (My world record welt was in high school, when I got bit right in the middle of my forearm during gym class, and I ended up with a red hive from WRIST TO ELBOW. I swear, I thought the school nurse was going to stab me in the heart with an EpiPen before I had the chance to explain that no, I just need some hydro-cortisone and Benadryl, really.)

(My child? By the way? COMPLETELY IMMUNE. He rarely, if ever, gets bitten in the first place, and when he does the bites fade from tiny red marks to nothing within a few hours and don’t appear to itch at all.)

Repelling mosquitoes requires a layered technique, I’ve found. You need to think about EVERYTHING you put on your body, from body soap on up, instead of just spraying some DEET on before you head out. Everything from lotions to perfumes can actually attract bugs…or help repel them, if you’re smart.

For the shower, look for natural soaps with peppermint, lemon or eucalyptus oil. (Handmade soaps are the best, if you can find them.) Cedarwood soaps are also a natural repellent, although I find the smell a bit manly and much. And of course, there’s citronella soap, which can usually be found at outdoorsy-type sporting goods stores. Regular use of these sorts of soaps will build up your defenses from the ground up, so to speak.

If you can’t find a nice-smelling soap that you like, or your skin is too dry for bar soap, find yourself an Avon Lady and order some body products from the Skin-So-Soft line. Remember this stuff? It started out as just another nice-smelling body oil spray and bath, until somebody discovered that actually, it’s actually good for everything under the sun, including repelling mosquitoes. Avon has since spun the line out to include a specific line of Bug Guard products (mostly sunscreens and bug sprays), but you can still get the original bath oils, washes and lotions. Swap out everything scented that you currently use with this stuff. No scented lotions. No non-Bug-Guard sunblock. Put the perfume in storage until fall. Layer yourself up.
AND NOW you’re ready for actual bug spray. Here’s my thing, though — I don’t want to smell like bug spray. Ever. I hate the roach-trap smell of it, and DEET creeps me out and I generally count the hours until I can jump in the shower and scrub the toxic crap off my skin. And I refuse to use it on my kid, weird-mosquito-immunity aside. So again, I try to stick to natural and botanical products — WITHIN REASON, of course, because I’m highly allergic to those bites, and I’m guessing my son isn’t also immune to West Nile.

Like the soaps I mentioned, lemon and eucalyptus are your best friends here. Repel makes one, as does Cutter (this is what I currently use). These insect sprays, while generally nice-smelling, are a little oilier than what you may be used to, but I find they work. Just last night we barbecued and ate dinner outside (surrounded by citronella candles, of course) and I did not get a single bite. My mother-in-law, who is the most crunchy, toxicity-paranoid person I know, refused to use the Cutter spray. She didn’t trust the Cutter’s vague listing of “Other Ingredients” beyond the natural oils and claimed mosquitoes never bothered her. She was bitten several times.

Welcome to August in DC!

Another important thing to remember about ANY bug spray is that you need to reapply. Even the best stuff wears off after a few hours. (I think most of the packages claim six hours or so of protection but I’d say it’s more like four, especially if you’re sweating.) Reapply before you walk home from work, or before you walk the dog. Remember that mosquitoes prefer shade to sun, and swarm around puddles or other areas with standing water. Dawn and dusk are the most mosquito-heavy times of day (conveniently the same times many of us are walking our dogs or jogging). Wear light-colored, tightly-woven fabrics to further discourage the bugs from biting you.
As for treating/camouflaging existing bites…firstly, NO. Do not put makeup on them. I’ve seen women do this. It does not work. “But when I do it…” No. It does not work. We can all tell what you’re trying to do. I’ve found that my bites get less noticeable if I keep up with the self-tanning moisturizer (and yes, I know I’ve just contradicted myself there, since those lotions are scented but…you know, VANITY), but beyond that, I don’t cover them up.
Of course, not scratching and causing scabs is HUGE and a MUST and you need to work on that. Self-control! You can do it. Carry around an and try to apply it as soon as possible after you get bit. Ahh, that’s the stuff. Apply a hydro-cortisone cream to all bites, old and new, every day to stop those annoying flare-ups you get two days later, right when you forget about the bite and scratch and…oh, damn, bleeding. If you tend to scab over, alternate the hydro-cortisone with a first-aid cream like Neosporin to aid the healing. The scabbing could be because you’re scratching at night, or your clothing or sheets are rubbing the welts, so consider a layer of Aveeno’s Anti-Itch lotion before bed. It has a little calamine lotion and might calm things down a bit more.


Published August 11, 2008. Last updated July 23, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Alicia

    August 11, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    I read the eating bananas makes you more attractive to mosquito bites. At first I didn’t believe it, but it turns out that it did cut down on the number of bites I got. Not a huge drop, but enough that I’m not eating bananas until November.

  • psumommy

    August 11, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    This post came at the best time ever- we just discovered this summer that my son has a horrible reaction to bug bites, and I hate to put DEET on him, so yay! Thank you, Amalah!

  • Elizabeth

    August 11, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    My son, unlike the oh-so-lucky Noah, develops a huge red welt to mosquito bites, although they don’t appear to itch. I don’t get welts, but boy, do they itch!
    We got some Burt’s Bees Res-Q Ointment and if we put it on right after the bite (ie within 15 min or so), it stops any reaction. Mine don’t itch and my son’s bites don’t swell up.
    It’s from Burt’s Bees, so the ingredients are all quite safe, mostly they sound like food products and vitamins.
    For prevention, we’ve been sticking with Cutter Advantage, which is DEET-free, and uses Picaridin. Our ped suggested it, saying it’s been used in Europe for years.

  • TasterSpoon

    August 11, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    You poor thing. If you do use DEET, I read somewhere that going over 30% isn’t any more effective, so that’s where you should max out there.
    I make a homemade spray out of Isopropyl Alcohol and citronella essential oil (occasionally also peppermint and lavender oils) that seems to work – I spray it all over my tent as well as on me, but fades within a couple of hours.
    I understand that mosquitoes like women and children more than men, and also prefer people who eat a lot of sugar, so maybe you could cut down on the sweets for the summer. And that you smell bad to mosquitoes if you take a Vitamin B supplement. I always take Vitamin B when I go to a tropical place and it’s not failsafe, but then I pass them out to my friends so I don’t have a good control group to see if it would be worse. I figure it can’t hurt.

  • Chlott

    August 11, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    It’s not only important what you put ON your body, but also what you put IN your body.
    I’ve found that eating extra vitamine B really helps also. Now when I did a quick scan on google, science doesn’t seem to back it up, but quite a few people say it has helped them. And it helps me, so it could be worth giving it a try?

  • De in D.C.

    August 11, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Ugh, I hear you on getting eaten alive. My neighborhood is infested with those horrible tiger mosquitoes, so it’s not just dawn and dusk anymore; it’s ALL. FREAKING. DAY!
    The best natural formula spray I’ve found (and believe me, I have tried every single one out there) is this stuff: (I apologize for the craptastic website). You can sometimes find it cheaper through other 3rd party retailers if you google around.
    As far as homemade soaps go, you might ask this Etsy seller if they could try and develop an anti-mosquito soap. They currently have one for poison ivy, so it might be worth a shot.

  • Stephanie

    August 11, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Believe it or not, a nose spray (like Afrin) helps tremendously with the swelling from bites, but you need to apply it as soon as possible after you get bitten.
    I used to get very swollen from mosquito bites (huge, puffy circles anywhere I got bitten) and the nose spray was the only thing my mom found to work.

  • Elaine

    August 11, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Nothing else to add about the product side of the question. But I say go ahead and wear those shorts, capris, skirts, whatever. Hot is hot, and other people get bug bites, too!

  • baltimoregal

    August 11, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    I’ve been told that being mosquito-attractive also has to do with your body temperature. If you have a lower body temp you are more attractive to them. (Oh, the joy). And Amy is soooo right about the re-applying- ALL repellents (natural, DEET, whatever) do not actually repel mosquitoes, they camouflage YOU from them, so even and frequent coatings totally matter.

  • Amy

    August 11, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    One thing that I’ve found really soothing is to keep a bottle of witch hazel in your fridge – apply it with a cotton ball to the bites and it really helps the itching and swelling. I feel your pain – I have the ginormous mutant mosquitos here in MI!

  • Elizabeth

    August 11, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    Louisiana tricks:
    My grandmother says, “drink parsley juice.” take parsley, boil it in water, drink the water once it has cooled. yes it is disgusting but it does work. my theory is that it makes you smell more like a plant and less like a tasty animal.
    one you have the bite, my in-laws take green rubbing alcohol and put in some crushed asprin. they keep it in the fridge and it works well as a first aid treatment for bug bites.

  • Susan

    August 11, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    My friends and family typically use me as their bug repellent. If I’m within a one mile radius of them, they don’t have to worry with getting bitten since the mosquitoes are typically turning my limbs into an all-you-can-eat buffet! I feel your pain.
    I have found that, for me, the lemon and eucalyptus blends seem to attract even more bugs. I have read that besides repelling vampires, garlic also serves to repel mosquitos (my own personal vampire). No, you don’t have to eat cloves of garlic or smell like a garlic roll, because supposedly the tablet form is just as effective.
    I’ve also read that rubbing Listerine on the bites can diminish the itchiness…and leave you minty fresh!

  • amy

    August 11, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    So, on the nose spray that Stephanie mentions, it’s not necessarily nose spray per se that works–it’s any antihistimine. The swelling and itching from bug bites is a histimine reaction, as with any allergy–your immune system is trying to fight off invaders. So yes, nose sprays with an antihistimine will work, and probably nice and fast. But a saline nose spray won’t do anything. I generally take a Claritin or chlorphenirimine when I’ve been bitten (works like a charm), and I’m betting those would work really well prophylactically for those of you who have extreme buggy problems. Maybe just incorporate a vitamin B supplement and an antihistimine into your daily summer routine?

  • mswas

    August 11, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    We’ve had good luck with treating fresh mosquito bites with hot water. The heat supposedly breaks down the enzymes from the mosquito saliva. Put some hot tap water on a washcloth and then apply and reapply to the bite.

  • Kate B.

    August 11, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    I echo Amy’s advice that you should NOT use any product that is scented in any way. I lived in Africa and it took me four months and about, oh, a few thousand bites before I realized that the reason I was so appealing was because I liked to smell good.
    I started to use unscented soap, lotion, shaving cream, etc. I still got bitten, but it helped IMMENSELY.

  • Linda

    August 11, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    I am pale, female, and don’t ever sweat that much. Mosquitos think I am a buffet table.
    The best thing I’ve noticed to do other than cover yourself with bug spray and repellants is to completely eschew all makeup, lotions, and perfumes. That means you, if you’re me, end up using plain ol’ Ivory soap, but bugs tend to stay away more. This tends to work better if I’m out vacationing (versus tourism-type travel) and don’t care how I look.
    The second sounds all weirdo New Age-y, but just don’t worry about getting bit. My parents used to take us to Lake Michigan during black fly season and I rarely got bitten badly because I just didn’t think too much about it. I have no idea why this seems to work, maybe you don’t smell different/as attractive? Even in the humid Midwest I didn’t get too many bites in the summer.

  • Ashley

    August 11, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    If you take a 100mg B-1 tablet every day you will no longer be tasty to a mosquito. Something about how it mixes with your blood makes you smell (only to the mosquitoes) unattractive so they won’t touch you.

  • titih25

    August 11, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    You can try my something as simple as COLD CREAM, yeah it might sound weird but you’ll see the results, besides it doesn’t smell,or leave marks on clothes, my nephew is allergic to mosquitoes’ bites and it works pretty well, he is 3 yrs old, so it works on babies too, for the bites you already have, you can try benadryl, we use the stick ’cause it is easier to keep on a purse, my baby is not allergic but it works to stop the itch and the pain, if it is infected you can try neosporin, i carry it on the go in my purse, hope it helps you!

  • Lori

    August 12, 2008 at 9:07 am

    Several years ago, a family vacation to Sanibel Island was almost ruined by bug bites–not mosquitoes, but those horrid no-see-ums. We looked as if we had been frolicking naked in poison ivy.
    The locals recommended a repellent called “Florida Swamp” which saved us from death and insanity.

  • qwyneth

    August 12, 2008 at 9:07 am

    You could try getting pregnant. I am usually a veritable buffet for mosquitos, but I’ve been pregnant all summer and I’ve only gotten a handful of bites. Weird!
    I read somewhere that Off! Deep Woods did the best in some tests where they sprayed a person with repellent and then had then stick their hand in a mosquito enclosure. We used it in the wipe form when we went on vacation this summer. A few times I put it on while already outside, and I actually noticed bugs that had been swarming me disappeared after I applied the repellent.

  • Ann

    August 12, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Scientific paper comparing lots of different (some ‘herbal’) repellants.

  • pseudostoops

    August 12, 2008 at 10:52 am

    My stars, I love this answer. Thorough! And non-chemical! And so many commenters who, like me, are a mosquito’s favorite treat! (I had to come home a day early from camp one year because the bites were causing such a horrible allergic reaction I started wheezing badly and the camp nurse got very nervous. True story.)
    I’ve had the best luck with Off Clean Feel, which doesn’t smell like death and which uses Picaridin instead of Deet. But I’m now excited to try some of these other suggestions!

  • Meghan

    August 12, 2008 at 11:01 am

    After spending 12 summers as a camper/counselor/camp director in the deep woods of Wisconsin, the only bug repellent that REALLY worked is UltraThon insect repellent (made by 3M). It is 33% DEET, which I understand wanting to avoid, but if you’re going to be in the deep woods and want to avoid not only those pesky bites but West Nile as well, then UltraThon is the way to go.
    My own personal experience aside, I now work in a clinic that does Travel medicine (Yellow Fever and Typhoid immunizations, and other preventative travel-illness type things) and for our patients that will be traveling to places where Malaria is a concern we recommend UltraThon. You can probably find it at WalMart but you might need to go to a camping/fishing/outdoors store.
    An alternative to putting icky DEET on your skin is to treat your clothes. The brand Ex Officio makes a line of “BUZZOFF” apparel, clothes that have been treated to repel mosquitoes. They’re quite pricey, but an alternative would be to use one of the products like “Duration” that you soak your own clothes in. It binds to the fabric and lasts for 6 weeks. Here’s a link to the place we send our travel clients to to buy both UltraThon and the clothing treatment stuff. If you’re taking all of the other steps suggested to make yourself less delicious to the mosquitoes, adding a layer of protection to your clothing might be something to try.

  • jodifur

    August 12, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    I’m also incredibley delicious and highly allergic to bug bites. Not that this applies to Amy, but I was told by my doctor that being on the pill or other hormonal birth control can make it worse as well.

  • Colleen

    August 12, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    I also welt-up and have uncontrollable itching. I even itch in my sleep unless I take some benadryl. I never had this sort of response all my years in Chicago getting bit, but I move to DC and am a mess. Thanks for the good recommendations on the repellants since I’ve not had a lot of luck in the past and was getting worried what would be safe, yet effective, on my boys.
    As for treatment of existing bites, if you don’t want to take benadryl or another antihistimine due to the drowsiness factor, use the benadryl cream (or it’s cheaper generic counterpart). Offers relief from swelling and itching for several hours and less messy than using nose-spray. (just be sure to not OD on using benadryl pill meds and benadryl cream…read the label on the cream)

  • Karen

    August 12, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    Just a heads up…those bites may not all be mosquitoes. They may be chiggers.
    Chiggers are nasty little things that are teeny tiny and live in the grass…so they’re more likely to bite you down on the legs, rather than on the arms.
    Chigger bites get huge and swell up because (this is gross) they lay an egg inside your skin, and it gestates, and then the larva hatches and if it does so while you’re inside, then you have chiggers–ta da!–in your house.
    I have noticed that chigger bites get big and red even if you don’t scratch them. My kids will get a mosquito bite but not scratch it (weirdos) and it will go away. The chigger bites remain, get bigger, and then yes, they’ll scab over the hole the larva worm leaves when it exits your skin. Even if you didn’t scratch them. They do itch like crazy–because you have a teeny living thing in there.
    I hope you weren’t eating lunch.
    To kill those chiggers, you need to SOAK your bitten body parts completely in water for at least five minutes. That will drown the little buggers. Alternatively, you can place an alcohol-soaked pad on the bites, and make sure it stays saturated with alcohol (we use a spray bottle) for five minutes to be safe. I find after doing this, the bites go down and disappear.
    I have heard that mosquitos don’t like rubbing alcohol either, so maybe spraying that on your legs before going out. You’ll smell like a hospital, but then, the bugs don’t like that either.

  • amy

    August 12, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    I second the recommendation for permethrin-treated clothes – if you’re mostly getting bites on bare lower legs, you could try tying a permethrin-treated bandanna (home treated or from the “BUZZ OFF” line) around one ankle and see if you get fewer bites on that side. Might look a little 80s but it could help. (Permethrin treated clothing also repels chiggers, if it turns out to be chiggers.) Mosquitos are also more attracted to some colors than others – they like black, red, blue, and dark colors in general – so you could try sticking to whites, tans, and yellows to “hide”.

  • Simkie

    August 12, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned this stuff, which surprises me–it works GREAT and is all natural.
    I love it.

  • maya

    August 13, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    california baby is a product i swear by for both myself and my son. it’s all natural, smells great, and comes in a spray, lotion, or lotion combo with sunscreen. we have not had any issues with mosquitoes this summer at all.

  • Tara

    August 26, 2008 at 10:13 am

    I use a mosquito repellant called TerraSheild, its all natural ingredients and it really works great. If you do get bit you can put Purify or lavender on, they really take the ich away. My kids come to me to make sure they have TerraSheild on before they go outside at night. You can purchase both TerraSheild and Purify at Doterra or you can go on line an purchase it (

  • Ali

    August 24, 2015 at 1:11 pm 

    That website helped me understand a bit how it all works to certain degree. The natural stuff is less effective than deet nine times out of ten. Deet isnt toxic unless you apply a ridiculous amount or ingest it.