Bug off with perfumes

NEW YORK • For mosquitoes, summertime is prime time. The pesky buggers swarm and feast as thirstily as their targets at backyard bashes in Brooklyn or outdoor fetes in the Hamptons. But with the looming threat of Zika this summer, mosquito season is underlined with uncharacteristic anxiety. Cue the mad scramble for repellents.

As people anxiously douse themselves, perfumes that double as bug repellent are having a moment.

One of them, Coqui Coqui, the fragrance line of a group of Mexican boutique hotels of the same name, offers a citrusy repellent packaged in the same manner as its fancy perfumes. It is sold out nearly everywhere, including on Net-aporter.com. At Aromaflage, a perfume-repellent hybrid line, husband-and-wife founders Michael and Melissa Fensterstock have been fielding daily questions about the Zika virus through their customer service channels.

"Our sales have doubled since last summer," Mr Fensterstock said.

The couple started the company in New Jersey in 2013 after travelling in South-east Asia for their honeymoon. There, they discovered that locals used essential-oil blends as repellents and thought to create a lab-refined version.

They now offer two scents at US$65 (S$87.60) for 50ml: the original, a zesty blend of orange peel oil, cedarwood oil and vanillin; and the Wild fragrance, which is more woodsy and features geranium oil, geraniol, lemongrass oil, cedarwood oil, citronellol and thyme.

The line has been largely marketed through luxury hotel chains. "The thought was, 'Why can't we launch something that was beautiful and efficacious?'" Mrs Fensterstock said.

But when it comes to efficacy, most essential oils can do only so much, said Dr Dendy Engelman, a dermatologist in Manhattan. She pointed to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommend only four mosquito-repelling ingredients: Deet, picaridin, IR3535 and oil of lemon eucalyptus.

"I always tell my patients these are the ones that have the studies to back them up, with Deet generally thought as being the most effective," she said. Still, she added, a lot of her patients "bristle the second you mention anything chemical".

For those who dislike a chemical odour, Ms Jessica Richards, founder of Shen Beauty in Brooklyn, has a savvy solution. She imports Mrs White's Unstung Hero Anti-Mosquito Eau de Cologne from London, which contains IR3535 but smells like lemon tea. She has nearly doubled her usual order this season.

"We usually sell a ton of it anyway," she said. "It smells great, it's in pretty packaging, it works and people love that it's British. But Zika is freaking everybody out. I have mums come in asking all sorts of questions and buying cases of 12." That has made the Unstung Hero quite the hostess gift in the neighbourhood, she said.

For die-hard anti-chemical clients, Dr Engelman points to a natural option: a repellent with oil of lemon eucalyptus as its base. Some studies support the effectiveness of rosemary and peppermint as well. And burning citronella candles can help clear an area, she said.

Should you travel to mosquito- rife territory, she suggests a multilayered plan of attack. "If someone doesn't want to put chemicals directly on their skin, I recommend insect-repellent clothing, which is infused with permethrin," she said.

In general, mosquitoes are drawn to pulse points - the neck, wrists, ankles and behind the knees, she added. "Keep those areas covered with clothing or even a bandanna as much as you can," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2016, with the headline 'Bug off with perfumes'. Print Edition | Subscribe