I am bitten by mosquitoes much more often than my friends and family. Why? And is there anything I can do to make them stop?
Mosquitoes are attracted to all people, says Christopher Potter, associate professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. But if you notice them more often than the people around you, it’s possible that you are inherently more tempting to mosquitoes.
There is no single, definitive reason why some people are bitten more than others, Potter says, in part because it’s a challenging problem for scientists to study.
But experts have identified two main categories that make us more attractive to mosquitoes: biological aspects we can’t change and behaviors we can.
The main thing in the first group is its smell. Dozens of diverse molecules distributed throughout your body come together to create your unique odor.
“It’s like strawberries – there’s no scent in a strawberry that gives it that smell,” says Potter. “It’s a combination of a dozen odors coming together.”
And it’s likely this distinct mix of chemical compounds that attracts mosquitoes, he says.
It’s also possible that some people emit more of the odor that insects like, says Lindy McBride, associate professor of ecology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience at Princeton University.
This doesn’t mean that someone who is particularly scented to humans will always be a target for mosquitoes — they are sensitive to different smells, even those that humans can’t detect, McBride points out. For example, “mosquitoes love the odor of your forearm,” she says. “No one thinks your arms are smelly.”
Stilts are also attracted to sebum, a waxy, oily substance on the skin that protects it from drying out and contains molecules that contribute to its odor.
Blood type may also be important, says Christopher Bazzoli, an emergency physician at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in natural area medicine. Mosquitoes seem to gravitate toward people with type O blood, he says, for reasons researchers haven’t confirmed.
The individual pattern of how you breathe – what Bazzoli called your “respiratory signature” – also plays a role. Mosquitoes seek out carbon dioxide, and the more we exhale, the more of the substance we send into the air, attracting insects to us.
Then there are the factors that depend more on how you act throughout the day.
If you do a vigorous workout outdoors, you may breathe more heavily and exhale more carbon dioxide, which could attract mosquitoes, Potter points out.
Sweat also sends a powerful signal to insects, McBride adds—especially sweat that lingers for a few hours on our skin, mixing with bacteria.
And if you’ve had a few beers on the beach or margaritas at happy hour, you can also emit some alcohol in your sweat, says Bazzoli, which can attract mosquitoes.
There are some evidence-based strategies to ward them off.
Some scented personal care products, such as certain fragrances, soaps and lotions, can attract mosquitoes, says Bazzoli. So if you’re going to be spending time outdoors and there are bugs hanging around, try using fragrance-free products.
Certain clothing colors, like black and dark blue, can act as a magnet for mosquitoes, he adds. Research also suggests that mosquitoes are attracted to bright oranges and reds. Stick to lighter colors, says Bazzoli. And if you want to be extra careful, wear long pants and sleeves.
Various insect repellents can help keep mosquitoes away, in part by effectively masking the smell of your skin, Potter points out. Wirecutter (The New York Times’ product recommendation service) suggests those that contain picaridin rather than deet.
There are also electronic devices such as special string lights that can help eliminate mosquitoes from the outdoor space around you.
Or you can try a simple trick recommended by McBride: Grab a fan and point it under the table. As indestructible — and endlessly annoying — as mosquitoes seem, they struggle in the wind, she says. “They’re not good fliers.”
Translation Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves