Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

“Why does bug spray smell so icky?”

My daughter, then only two, takes her stuffed dog for a walk outside. The dog is hanging from a leash, lifted up just enough to keep from dragging on the ground.

Happier times, when a girl could take her stuffed dog for a walk in the evening without being slathered with all that icky anti-bug and -sun stuff. (Photo: Shala Howell)

The Twelve-Year-Old may be getting the answers to her own questions now, but fortunately, her five-year-old self asked me enough questions to last a lifetime.

Like this one.

“Mommyo, why does bug spray smell so icky?”

I don’t know about you, but I have a terrible time convincing anyone in the family to wear bug spray. It just smells so bad. Sadly, that stink is pretty essential to the process.

Bugs, it turns out, adore the scent of our shampoos, soaps, conditioners, and perfumes. They’re also pretty fond of the carbon dioxide in our sometimes stinky-to-us breath and sweat.

Bug sprays work, not by killing the bugs around us, but by covering up the smells which invite bugs to bite us. The most effective bug sprays smell just as bad to bugs as they do to us. EPA-approved sprays containing DEET are the stinkiest and most effective, repelling both you and the bugs around you for up to five hours. Citronella and other essential oil-based repellents wear off faster.

Sadly, explaining how bug sprays work to my now twelve-year-old daughter some seven years after she’d forgotten she’d ever asked the question isn’t making it any easier to convince her to use it.

But sometimes, you just have to wear it anyway.

Fortunately, we live in a cool area, so minimizing our need for bug spray by wearing long pants, long-sleeved shirts, socks, and closed-toe shoes isn’t too bad — even in summer. Now that we are all much more aware of (and wary of) the chemicals that make up the products in our lives, we have taken to spraying the bug spray on top of our clothes, rather than directly on our skin, which helps too.

Even so, I sometimes think my daughter’s favorite part of getting out and into nature these days is the bit where she goes back inside and into the bath.

Which is a shame. Especially now that we live in an area full of spots like this.


Redwood Grove Park in Los Altos, California. (Photo: Shala Howell)

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