If you've been outside in the last couple weeks - even just to stick your arm out the door to grab the mail - you don't need me to tell you about Madison's major mosquito problem. While this week's cooler temps and freshening breezes have somewhat alleviated the problem, there are still trouble spots (woodsy backyards and forest paths) and activities (lawn mowing at dusk, picking berries and, of course, weeding the garden) that are going to put you head-to-head with the buzzing fiends once again.
Most Wisconsinites have a mosquito strategy, from wearing long sleeves and pants to liberal sprays of Deep Woods Off! I've tended to offset my use of DEET-containing products while camping with covering up with clothes when I'm around home.
This summer, though, between the burgeoning mosquito population and my two elderly dogs, who need to be escorted into the backyard every time they go out (including a couple of trips in the middle of the night), I decided additional protection would make me happier. Despite a new generation of DEET-based repellents that are less industrial-smelling, I didn't want to swathe myself in DEET at bedtime. But would natural remedies solve the problem?
$10 (4 fl. oz.)
This spray from Nature's Acres of North Freedom, Wis., is made from witch hazel infused with "certified organic catnip and lavender, borax, essential oil of lavender, basil and sage." It was the nicest smelling of any of the repellents I used, kind of like a skin astringent. And as far as I could discern, it had absolutely no negative effect on the mosquitoes at all. Trying it did offer me ample opportunity to test out a couple of after-bite anti-itch solutions, though; see below.
$8 (4 fl. oz.)
Buzz Kill smells primarily like citronella, which it contains, along with lemon eucalyptus, orange, clove, cinnamon, peppermint, lavender, witch hazel, avocado oil and polysorbate 20 (a surfactant).
Somewhat to my surprise, Buzz Kill did prevent the mosquitoes from landing on my skin where I'd applied it. They went right to my clothes, where I hadn't sprayed it. Buzz Kill even worked when I went into the garden to pick tomatoes. I found that its effectiveness wears off after an hour or less, so it worked best for task-based trips into the yard. Its maker, Saddle Soaps LLC, is a Madison business.
$7.45 (4 fl. oz.)
Bug Ban has an ingredient list only slightly different from Buzz Kill (citronella oil, lemongrass oil, rosemary oil, thyme oil, grain alcohol, soy lecithin and xanthan gum). To me, Bug Ban smelled the same as Buzz Kill and was similarly effective.
$8 (4 fl. oz.)
Burt's has a similar ingredient list (soybean oil, castor seed oil, rosemary oil, lemongrass oil, cedar leaf oil, peppermint oil, citronella oil, clove flower oil, geranium oil, tocopherol) but had a stronger citronella scent that gave me a headache. I can't establish with certainty that the stronger citronella provides longer-lasting protection, but at any rate I'd rather reapply Buzz Kill than get a headache.
Having had ample opportunity to obtain actual mosquito bites over the course of my testing, I wanted to give a couple of post-bite anti-itch products a whirl. With them, a kind of placebo effect set in. With the repellents, I could spray my arm, stick it into the garden, and watch mosquitoes not land on my arm (or land) and call that some kind of proof. With the anti-itch products, I often couldn't tell if the itching had stopped or not.
$3.75 (.5 fl. oz.)
Ammonia is the active ingredient in AfterBite; it's a clear liquid in a sort of "pen" applicator. I did not find that AfterBite succeeded in stopping mosquito bite itch.
$4.85 (1 fl. oz.)
I liked the Bee Gees-style name of this product, and after rubbing the light gel into the bite, it stopped most of the itching (though not immediately). It reminded me of a more expensive arnica/nettle gel I had a couple of years back. SssstingStop is a natural-homeopathic remedy with active ingredients echinacea, ledum palustre (wild rosemary) and urtica dioica (stinging nettle), with citronella and eucalyptus oils, too.