Stories about the Zika virus have been dominating the news cycle this summer, each one more frightening than the last. The mosquito-borne illness, which the CDC concluded can definitely cause the devastating birth defect microcephaly, continues to spread, most recently to a small area north of Miami.
Using an EPA-registered bug spray or simply covering your skin will go a long way toward guarding you from mosquito bites. Still, some companies have taken advantage of consumer panic by marketing products that falsely promise to protect against Zika.
"Consumers should be advised that there are many products on the market that won't protect them [from mosquitoes]," says Stacy Rodriguez, a researcher from New Mexico State University who has tested many mosquito-repelling products with her team. In an effort to crack down on these kinds of scams, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said his office recently sent cease-and-desist letters to companies selling Zika-protection products that "simply don't work."
Here, seven such products you shouldn't waste your money on—no matter what the label (or the Internet) tells you.
Any wristband marketing itself as being mosquito-repelling won't live up to its claims, experts say. "[Wristbands] offer no protection whatsoever," says Joseph Conlon, a technical advisor at the American Mosquito Control Association. "No matter who makes them, they're useless." Three such products, the Wildheart Outdoors Natural Mosquito Repellant Bracelet, the MosQUITo Repellent Bracelet Wristband Band, and the Mobile Pro Gear ZIKA Shield Mosquito Repellent Band were among the companies recently sent a cease-and-desist notice by Schneiderman's office.
Rodriguez agrees: "The wristbands that we have tested did not effectively repel mosquitoes," she says. "We hypothesize that the amount of repellant released from a small band is often not sufficient to protect a person."
Ultrasonic devices claim to create an electromagnetic "sound shield" that wards off bugs; two of them, the STAR Ultrasonic Pest Repeller and the iGear iGuard 2.0 Ultrasonic Insect Pest Repellent were also sent cease-and-desists. "It's a nice idea, but it unfortunately doesn't work," says Conlon. There aren't any scientific studies that show mosquitoes can be deterred by sound, explains Rodriguez. What's more, she and her team tested one of the ultrasonic devices on the market and didn't see any kind of effect.
Lavender, peppermint, and other plants are referred to as being mosquito-repelling. While there are some "very ineffective" insecticides made from plant oils, Rodriguez says simply having them in your garden won't do all that much. "We're not aware of any scientific study showing that putting [certain plants] in your house or backyard has any effect on the number of mosquitoes out there, or how often one gets bitten," she says.
Citronella oil is derived from lemongrass, another plant sometimes considered a mild natural repellant. Although many families light citronella candles before serving dinner outside, they're most likely useful only for ambiance. Rodriguez and her team tested the effectiveness of citronella candles specifically against the Aedes mosquito, and found the scent failed to repel them at all.
There are a few mosquito-repelling patches on the market right now, including ones that contain vitamin B and Brewer's yeast as active ingredients. They claim to create a "barrier" that deters mosquitoes, but "they're all useless," says Conlon. (One patch called Kenza High Quality Zika Mosquito Repellent Smiley Patch was sent a cease-and-desist.) Rodriguez adds that there aren't any studies showing that vitamin B patches can help repel mosquitoes.
Proof that you can't believe everything you see on Pinterest: The Internet trend of putting a dryer sheet in your pocket to repel mosquitoes is a myth, Conlon says. "It won't keep you safe," he says. "It probably started out as a circumstantial thing—someone put a dryer sheet in their pocket, didn't get bitten, and attributed it to that."
A handheld bug zapper, which is shaped like a tennis racket and produces tiny electric shock waves to literally zap bugs, can be somewhat useful, says Rodriguez. "We use them in the lab to kill mosquitoes that escaped their cages," she says. "They're highly effective when you can manually target the mosquito." But the reality is that unless you're in a small room, it's not always easy to identify mosquitoes lurking nearby. The stationary bug zappers on the market don't do as good of a job: "They're more effective as moth killers than mosquito killers," Rodriguez says.