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Delete the app—there are better methods. (Education Specialist/Flickr)
Gear Guy

Do Bug-Repellent Cell Phone Apps Work?

Bug spray seems messy and outdated. Do the apps for Android phones and iPhones really work? What about bug-repellent clothing?

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Bob Parks

If you’ve followed the Gear Guy column in the last few weeks, you know that I’m a little obsessed with cell phone apps for the wilderness. So when I saw that several popular camping apps claim to repel mosquitoes, I had to put them to the test. For instance, Anti Mosquito – Sonic Repeller from the Pico Brothers has almost a million downloads and thousands of reviews. Mosquito Repellent from Green Mobile has millions and millions of downloads and over 65,000 positive reviews. The idea being that an ultrasonic sound generated from your phone “mimics predators.” You open the app, choose “the optimal repelling frequency” for your area, and then the software makes a powerful high-pitched sound, not audible to humans at most settings. When my kids and I brought the phone into a buggy wooded area, the mosquitoes really did seem to be steering clear of us. And then, when we brought the phone indoors, it really did scare the crap out of our cat.

Sadly, the placebo effect is strong in this one. Several well-designed studies from the last few years show that these apps and other EMRs (electronic mosquito repellents) don’t lower the number of bites to human subjects who held the devices. And, it gets worse. Those initial findings aren’t totally correct. A more recent university study—”Electronic mosquito repellers induce increased biting rates….“—shows that the cell phone apps and other high-frequency noisemakers actually attract mosquitoes to you. Subjects had 33 percent more bites when using the ultrasonic devices.

So the anti-mosquito cell phone apps are effective—just in reverse. On your next outing, if you can induce the partiers in the next campsite to use the app, the bugs will ditch your area and flock to their site.

Or, if you want a more dependable way to prevent bites, put on some bug-repellent clothing. We detail two good options, shirts from Columbia Sportswear and ExOfficio that have a proven effect on bugs and stay potent for up to 70 washings.

Columbia Bug Shield Mesh Jacket

Bug Shield Mesh Jacket
Bug Shield Mesh Jacket (Courtesy of Columbia)

Columbia’s mesh hoodie ($90) uses a similar technology to other bug-repellent clothing on the market—it’s embedded with 0.52 percent Permethrin, a chemical that repels everything from mosquitoes to ticks. The treatment is odorless and tightly bonded to the fibers, but depending on how you feel about such chemicals, you may or may not want to adopt this bug-control option (the U.S. EPA’s take: not harmful to humans or land animals, but dangerous to aquatic life if it gets in the water). My personal sense is that if used responsibly (i.e. not using the liquid form of Permethrin near a stream), Permethrin, especially embedded in clothing, provides a benefit without an environmental cost. For instance, according to 2011 studies in Rhode Island and North Carolina, Permethrin-treated clothing is one of the best defenses against ticks.

In my tests with the Columbia hoodie, I found that it made rummaging around in the buggy early evening backyard a lot more fun. The jacket’s design looks slick and functions well as a coverall against the nasties. It weights almost nothing (just seven ounces), has really nice details like handy zippered pockets and a draw-string hem, and covers your whole upper body when the bugs get bad. Other colors: blue/gray and orange/gray.

ExOfficio BugsAway Chas’r Long-Sleeve Crew Tee

BugsAway Chas'r Long-Sleeve Crew Tee
BugsAway Chas'r Long-Sleeve Crew Tee (Courtesy of ExOfficio)

ExOfficio’s long sleeve tee ($45) also contains 0.52 percent Permethrin, but its design gives it a more groomed look than the Columbia jacket. I liked the incredibly soft feel of the cotton shirt, and I liked that it stayed soft and kept its size after a couple of washes. Unless it was listed on the tag, you wouldn’t know bug repellent was bonded to the ExOfficio fabric. It feels and smells like a shirt. As with the Columbia jacket, the chemical supposedly stays active for up to 70 washings (though I didn’t get around to testing that).

The light weight (eight ounces) makes it a great base layer for hiking during tick season (generally April to September in most places), and keeping out of reach of mosquitoes. Its sun protection rating is Ultraviolet Protection Factor 30+ and it breaths well in hot weather. The long-sleeve tee comes in black, grey heather, green, and tan.