Every summer, my girlfriend and I begin the arduous, largely futile battle against the mosquitoes that slip into the invisible spaces between our window frames and their screens. I say “my girlfriend and I,” but the truth is that I remain largely unafflicted; I like to say that because I grew up in Minnesota (where the mosquito is the “state bird,” get it?), I’ve already suffered my lifetime allotment of bites. Meanwhile, on the other side of our bed, Lydia is eaten alive — often, terribly, on the face.
I assumed the difference could be chalked up to Lydia having “sweeter blood” than mine, or something equally unscientific but real-sounding, but Trent Frazer, director of entomology and technical services at eco-friendly pest control company Aptive Environmental, tells me that’s not really a thing. First of all, the reason anyone gets bit on the face during the night is because it’s usually the body part left most exposed. “The most important reasons mosquitoes are attracted to a human body is because of sight, and smell, but also heat,” says Frazer, who also has a master’s degree in entomology from the University of Florida. When you’re covered by a blanket, your face is where you’re emitting that heat. And if you breathe with your mouth open while you sleep (sorry Lydia), you’re practically asking for it. “Mosquitoes are attracted most of all to carbon dioxide,” says Frazer. “Combine the accessibility of the face with the attractant that is emitted by the face, and that’s where you’re going to get bit.”
This might be pretty intuitive so far, but I found what came next revelatory. Frazer tells me that mosquitoes are also attracted to the natural smell of human skin, or more specifically, some of the chemicals (like acetone and ammonia) it emits. I asked if part of the reason I’m spared is because I go to bed with approximately 2,000 serums and creams on my face, and Lydia goes to bed bare-faced (despite my many exhortations to use that not-inexpensive Kiehl’s serum I bought her).
“Absolutely,” he says. “Mosquitoes are attracted to human skin, and if you’re covering your skin up with something, you’re disguising that.” Now, two people does not a controlled experiment make, and there are many factors that may comprise a mosquito’s attraction to a certain person (same). But Michael Reiskind, assistant professor of entomology at North Carolina State University, agrees that it’s plausible that my serums are working in my favor. “There’s a lot of things that can prevent a mosquito from biting you when they’re applied liberally and stay wet, so if you’re going to bed with a cream on, that probably does prevent mosquitoes from biting, whether it’s the scent or the taste that bothers them,” he says. The fatal flaw with most traditional mosquito repellants, Reiskind tells me, is that they stop working as well when they’re dry. “I think it’s possible that while you’re wearing whatever face serum, face mask kind of thing, sure, it might keep them off.” This could also explain why the kind of products you wear at night might be more likely to protect you — they’re often thicker, and wetter, than what you wear during the day.
However, no two beauty serums are created equal (allegedly), and you’ll have to try one for yourself to know if it’ll do you any favors, mosquito-wise. Sunday Riley’s Good Genes, for instance, contains lactic acid, a chemical typically favored by mosquitoes. Still, that doesn’t make it bait, necessarily — mosquitoes are picky about their doses, and at certain levels, even those chemicals which typically attract them can become repulsive. “I don’t know off the top of my head what the dose would be in somebody fermenting sweat, which is where we would see lactic acid [occurring naturally] in a person, versus how much is in a certain product, but my guess is that it would be way more in the product, from the point of view of the mosquito,” says Reiskind.
Also, wearing serums may be helping me, but it may also be, in a roundabout, not my fault sort of way, making it easier for the mosquitoes to focus on my girlfriend. “If [these products] were a really effective repellent, or spatial repellent, then your partner would benefit,” says Reiskind. “The fact that you see that kind of difference between you or your partner maybe suggests that a mosquito buzzing around may land on your face, and then they’re like ‘Ew,’ and look for something else.” Like the delicious smelling skin of the person six inches away, for instance.
Am I going to use this science as a justification to buy new and exciting liquids and creams targeted to the ever-more-specific failures of my face? Yes. And am I going to lord this over Lydia? You betcha! For the rest of my life. For whatever else these serums may or may not do for me, at least I will know they are protecting me from the Minnesotan state bird.