How Mosquito Repellents Work – What You Should Know About DEET

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Keeping mosquitoes off is no simple task, and choosing the right method to accomplish that job is equally as hard. But since we absolutely need these bugs to get off our personal space and leave our blood to ourselves, industries have developed repellents that are effective and easy to use. But have you ever wondered about these products? Have you ever wondered how mosquito repellents work? What happens when a mosquito gets near it?

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DEET is popular in bug sprays.

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How Mosquitoes Hunt for Blood

To understand the inner workings of a common repellent, you have to learn how mosquitoes get attracted to you in the first place.

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Mosquito World summarizes how these insects look for their blood meals using only three things – their antennae, eyes and maxillary palpus.

And insect’s antenna is somewhat equivalent to a human’s nose. It detects chemicals in the air, a lot like how we smell things. However, odors aren’t the only trails the mosquitoes pick up. These bugs can also sense chemicals at their most basic forms. As a result, they can “smell” the carbon dioxide that humans and other mammals release through their breaths and their skin. It’s a very handy tool for mosquitoes when searching for its next meal.

Once they’ve picked up something, some mosquitoes use their compound eyes to spot movement. Their eyes are made up of hundreds of little lenses that can detect movement from a variety of directions.

Not all mosquitoes rely on their eyes though. This way of hunting is often seen in day biters rather than species that only feed at night.

Finally, the maximallry palpus is a body part that’s located on the mosquito’s head. It’s very sensitive to heat. Mosquitoes use this to locate warm-blooded animals and hone in on the perfect spot where the capillaries are closest to the skin. This is why they can find you even if it’s pitch black outside.

With these three bodily devices combined, the tiny mosquito is equipped with everything it needs to feed on our blood.

How Mosquito Repellents Work

There aren’t a lot of studies that feature other repellants. However, researchers who work with mosquitoes and other insects have their own ideas on how DEET works.

DEET, N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide or diethyltoluamide is the most popular active ingredient in many commercial repellents. It’s a yellow oil that when applied to skin or on your clothes, deters insects for a least 4 hours.

DEET evaporates off and carries with it molecules that cause insects unusual behaviors. While there is no consensus on how this really happens, some scientists argue that mosquitoes simply hate or dislike DEET’s smell. That’s why they stay away from it. But for others, DEET “confuses” them because it dulls their senses, making them unable to find food.

These are all acceptable answers. However, there’s one study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that has a more detailed explanation on this phenomenon. It pointed out that DEET tested on fruit flies caused their odor receptors to fail, scrambling how they recognize odors and disrupting their normal functions. And since fruit flies have some similarities to mosquitoes, they could experience the same problem when they’re near DEET.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that DEET and most repellents do affect bugs, and learning how mosquito repellents work is another one of those little bits of information that you can use when camping or when buying repellents for yourself.