Last week, I wrote about my love of camping, and how to best be prepared before heading out into the woods. Unfortunately, it seems that no amount of preparedness can make me less delicious to mosquitoes who, without fail, seem to bite me more frequently than anyone else in my party. Even with all the repellent in the world, I still seem to be super-prone to bug bites of all kinds. But why? Why are some people magnets to mosquitoes, fleas, and other biting bugs, while others (like my boyfriend) seem to be utterly repulsive to them? And, perhaps more importantly, what can I do to stop it?
I reached out to a few biologists and toxicologists to get some input on this matter, but for the most part, my question was shrugged off as a “mystery of biology.”
“Some people just taste better,” one told me. “But it’s mostly genetic, we think.”
Apparently, the lack of a conclusive answer isn’t scientific laziness (or an unwillingness to talk to an Internet Girl, such as myself)–it’s actually because nailing down exactly what it is about a person that attracts mosquitoes is pretty difficult. With so many difference in genes, pheromones, eating habits, lifestyle choices, and other potentially relevant variants, positively identifying the difference between a tasty human and a repellent one is a big challenge.
However, scientists have been able to narrow down a few things that do and do not, conclusively, impact a person’s attractiveness to various insects.
- Activity and body heat: If you move around a lot and produce large amounts of carbon dioxide and lactic acid, mosquitoes are both more likely to hone in on you. This is true. However, the implications are a little murkier. For example, larger people produce more CO2, so they should be more attractive…but as a person under five feet tall, that doesn’t exactly ring true. Also, fear of mosquitoes is not going to stop me from getting really sweaty while hiking–it’s just going to make me apply more bug repellent. But this is good to know.
- Bananas: For a long time, people thought that eating bananas would make you more attractive to mosquitoes. That hasn’t actually been shown to be true. Plus, bananas are yummy and good for you. So…eat them!
- Garlic: More than a few of the people I questioned mentioned that garlic has long thought to be a way to deter mosquitoes and other bugs. However, there’s nothing scientifically tying the smelly bulb to a reduction in bites. But still, some people swear by it, and really, it’s great for your immune system, so you may as well eat it.
- Booze: This depends on the kind of bugs you’re dealing with. A 2002 study found that drinking can attract mosquitoes…while a 2012 study showed that bedbugs are deterred by it.
- Fabric softener sheets: Definitely a myth.
- Vitamin B12: Also a myth.
Which isn’t to say that some of these might not work anecdotally, but it does mean that basically, there’s nothing we can eat or drink that is absolutely linked to a reduction in bug bites. It also means that science really still doesn’t have a great answer to my question.
What we do know, though, is that there are some naturally-occurring smells that seem to ward off pests and cut down on the number of bug bites you may get. Lavender, for example, is pretty great at fending off fleas, while citronella is an obvious go-to for mosquitoes. Eucalyptus, too, is a pretty good all-purpose scent. And while experimenting with which natural smells can help cut down on bites may take some (itchy, horrible, possibly swollen) time, it’s worth it to figure out which ones work with your own body chemistry to keep you from getting bitten.
Image: Me, being itchy