Fear of the mosquito-borne Zika virus is spurring sales of well-known insect repellents, but companies pushing natural products are hoping to grab a share of the market as well, saying their methods will keep the bugs at bay without the ickiness of traditional sprays.
Aromaflage, a three-year-old company, says its fragrances have proven just as effective at deflecting mosquitoes as certain DEET-based repellents in laboratory tests. The bottles retail for $30 to $65 and sport a high-end look that’s better suited to cosmetic counters than Wal-Mart shelves.
“We saw there was a gap in the market, and we didn’t want to be another — quote-unquote — ‘natural bug spray,’” said Melissa Fensterstock, who started the company with her husband, Michael, after they marveled at how locals kept mosquitoes away during their honeymoon to southeast Asia.
Alabama-based inventor Robert E. Borland Jr. said Central and South Americans, who are already seeing widespread outbreaks, are clamoring for his vitamin-based skin patch — though demand in the U.S. isn’t spiking yet.
“If it doesn’t have to do with Trump or Hillary, it isn’t making the news” in the states, he said. “But down there it is really a big deal.”
Public health officials say there are already 600 travel-related cases of Zika and warn the virus will soon begin to spread by mosquito in parts of the U.S.
The Centers for Disease Control has urged Americans, particularly pregnant women, to cover up and apply insect repellent to avoid bites. The CDC says products containing compounds extracted from natural sources, such as oil of lemon eucalyptus, can deter mosquitoes, though it also recommends popular sprays that contain picaridin or DEET, a well-known substance developed for the U.S. Army in the 1940s.
“There is no ‘natural’ substitute for DEET — it is the first-line repellent and should be used by those seeking to lower their risk of being bitten by mosquitoes,” said Amesh Adalja, senior associate at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Health Security.
But some consumers are turned off by DEET-based repellents. They don’t like the odd smell and say it irritates their skin, while others are leery of anything that smacks of chemicals, as reflected in the “buy organic” trend in supermarkets.
“Consumers more conscious about what they’re putting on their bodies, what they’re putting in their bodies,” Mrs. Fensterstock said. “People are looking for more natural solutions.”
Daniel Fabricant, president of the Natural Products Association, said the effectiveness of natural and chemical-based repellents varies widely, so people traveling to Zika-affected areas should confer with their doctor before choosing a product.
“I think people are choosing some of the natural products because, for better or worse, we live in an age of perception where they say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to use that anymore,’” he said. “There’s a faction, too, that just doesn’t want to use hydrocarbons, petrochemicals — it’s that crowd, too.”
The Internet has made it easier for consumers with those concerns to track down options.
Searching on Google for terms such as “DEET-free” brings up Mr. Borland’s BugPatch, which is applied to the skin and seeps vitamin B1, or thiamine, into the bloodstream to repel insects through odors that are released by perspiration.
“It gives you 48-hour protection and it’s all natural,” said Steve Giffin, director of operations at Giffin Enterprises, which markets and sells the patch for Mr. Borland.
Meanwhile, Aromaflage uses a mix of plant-based essential oils, vanillin and alcohol to create a “shield” that dissuades mosquitoes from landing on skin. Its spray was just as effective as products with 25-percent DEET concentrate over the course of two and a half hours, according to lab results from Iowa State University that are posted on the company’s website.
Aromaflage says it hasn’t seen major spike in sales amid the Zika scare just yet, though consumers are asking tougher questions about how the product works.
“People are more educated about it,” Mrs. Fensterstock said.
Aromaflage doesn’t show up on the Environmental Protection Agency’s registry of repellents, which lists effectiveness rates in keeping mosquitoes away.
The company said it is exempt from having to register because it is considered a “minimum risk pesticide,” though it conducted performance testing so it could make efficacy claims. Its owners may pursue registration in the future, however, to enjoy the upside of having a seal of governmental approval.
Other entrepreneurs are just getting started.
Dr. Richard Silver, a retired anesthesiologist in Tampa, Florida, launched MosquitoPatch.com to whip support for a scratch-activated patch that releases natural oils of citronella, lavender, eucalyptus and peppermint.
He said he hopes to sell enough patches to offset costs for donating his product to poorer, mosquito-afflicted areas that don’t have many options.
“I think the difference between me and other companies that are doing the essential oils is that I’m not doing it for profit,” Dr. Silver said. “For me, it’s a feel-good thing.”