A range of shirts, pants, socks and accessories sold in specialist camping and fishing retailers claim to protect against mosquito bites for various periods.
In regions experiencing a high risk of mosquito-borne disease, insecticide treated school uniforms have been used to help provide extra protection for students.
Some academics have even suggested fashion designers be encouraged to design attractive and innovative “mosquito-proof” clothing.
But while the technology has promise, commercially available mosquito-repellent clothing isn’t the answer to all our mozzie problems.
Some items of clothing might offer some protection from mosquito bites, but it’s unclear if they offer enough protection to reduce the risk of disease. And you’ll still need to use repellent on those uncovered body parts.
First came mosquito-proof beds
Bed nets have been used to create a barrier between people and biting mosquitoes for centuries. This was long before we discovered mosquitoes transmitted pathogens that cause fatal and debilitating diseases such as malaria. Preventing nuisance-biting and buzzing was reason alone to sleep under netting.
Bed nets have turned out to be a valuable tool in reducing malaria in many parts of the world. And they offer better protection if you add insecticides.
The insecticide of choice is usually permethrin. This and other closely related synthetic pyrethroids are commonly used for pest control and have been assessed as safe for use by the United States Environmental Protection Authority, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority and other regulatory bodies.
New technologies have also allowed for the development of long-lasting insecticidal bed nets, offering extended protection against mosquito bites, perhaps up to three years, even with repeated washing.
Mosquito repellent clothing
Innovations in clothing that prevent insect bites have primarily come from the United States military. Mosquito-borne disease is a major concern for military around the globe. Much research funding has been invested in strategies to provide the best protection for personnel.
Traditional insect repellents, such as DEET or picaridin, are applied to the skin to prevent mosquitoes from landing and biting.
While permethrin will repel some mosquitoes, treated clothing most effectively works by killing the mosquitoes landing and trying to bite through the fabric.
Clothing treated with permethrin has been shown to protect against mosquitoes and ticks, as well as other biting insects and mites. For these studies, clothing was generally soaked in solutions or sprayed with insecticides to ensure adequate protection.
Fabrics factory-treated with insecticides, as used by many military forces, are purported to provide more effective protection. But while some studies suggest clothing made from these fabrics provide protection even after multiple washes, others suggest the “factory-treated” fabrics don’t provide greater levels of protection than “do it yourself” versions.
Overall, the current evidence suggests insecticide-treated clothing may reduce the number of mosquito bites you get, but it doesn’t offer full protection.
More research is needed to determine if insecticide-treated clothing can prevent or reduce rates of mosquito-borne disease.
Better labelling and regulation
All products that claim to provide protection from insect bites must be registered with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. This includes sprays, creams and roll-on formulations of repellents.
Anything labelled as “insect repelling”, including insecticide treated clothing, requires registration. Clothing marketed as simply “protective” (such as hats with netting) doesn’t. This approach reflects the requirements of the US EPA.
If you’re shopping for insect-repellent clothing, check the label to see if it states that it is registered by the APVMA. You should see a registration number and the insecticide used in the fabric clearly displayed on the clothing’s tag.
While some products will be registered, there are still some concerns about how the efficacy of mosquito bite protection is assessed.
There is likely to be growing demand for these types of products and experts are calling for internationally accepted guidelines to test these products. Similar guidelines exist for topical repellents.
Finally, keep in mind that while various forms of insecticide-treated clothing will help reduce the number of mosquito bites, they won’t provide a halo of bite-free protection around your whole body.
Remember to apply a topical insect repellent to exposed areas of skin, such as hands and face, to ensure you’re adequately protected from mosquito bites.
Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Alienor Chauvenet, Griffith University; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; David M Watson, Charles Sturt University; Elisa Bayraktarov, The University of Queensland; Hayley Geyle, Charles Darwin University; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; Ian Leiper, Charles Darwin University; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jim Radford, La Trobe University; John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Les Christidis, Southern Cross University; Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Molly K Grace, University of Oxford; Paul McDonald, University of New England, and Sarah Legge, Australian National University
Glossy Black-Cockatoos used to be common on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island until possums started eating their eggs and chicks. After volunteers helped protect nest hollows and erect safe nest boxes, the population more than doubled.
But how do you measure such success? How do you compare cockatoo nest protection with any other investment in conservation?
Unfortunately, we have few ways to compare and track the different efforts many people may be making to help conserve our natural treasures.
That’s why a group of us from a dozen Australian universities along with scientists and private researchers around the world have created metrics of progress for both our understanding of how to manage threats of different intensity, and how well that management has been implemented. We also provide guidance on what still needs doing before a threat no longer needs active management.
For the first time, we looked at every threatened bird in Australia to see how well – or not – they are managed. Hopefully, we can use this to avoid compounding our disastrous recent track record of extinctions in Australia.
The state of Australian birds
What we did differently was collect the same data across different species, which meant we could compare conservation efforts across all bids.
When we applied these metrics to Australia’s 238 threatened bird species, the results were both encouraging and daunting. The good news is that we understand how to reduce the impact of about 52% of the threats – although of course that means we know little about how to deal with the other 48%.
But the situation is decidedly worse when we consider how effectively we are putting that research into practice. Only 43% of threats are being managed in any way at all – and just a third of the worst threats – and we are achieving good outcomes for just 20%.
But at least we now know where we are. We can celebrate what we have accomplished, appreciate how much needs doing, and direct our efforts where they will have the greatest benefit.
The threats to our birds
Introduced mammals, particularly cats, have been (and continue to be) a significant threat to Australian birds. Although we have successfully eradicated feral animals on many islands, saving many species, they remain a grave threat on the mainland.
The effect of climate change is becoming the top priority threat for the future. About half of all threatened birds are likely to be affected by increases in drought, fire, heat or sea level. Given the policy prevarication at a global level, targeted research is essential if birds are to be helped to cope.
By looking at multiple species, we can also identify what helps successful conservation. Monitoring, for instance, has a big impact on threat alleviation – better monitored species receive more attention.
There is also – unsurprisingly – a strong connection between knowledge of how to manage a threat and successful application of that knowledge. Often policy people want instant action, but our work suggests that action before knowledge will squander money.
Where to from here?
So what can we use this analysis for? One use is helping species close to extinction.
Using the same approach for multiple species groups, it is apparent that, while birds and mammals are in a parlous state, the most threatened fish are far worse off. We can also identify some clear priorities for action.
Finally, we must acknowledge this work emerged not from a government research grant, but from a non-government organisation (NGO). BirdLife Australia needed an overview of the country’s performance with threatened birds and was able to draw on the volunteered skills of biologists and mathematicians from around the country, and then the world.
Indeed, one of the future projects will be using the new assessment tool to see just how much of the conservation action around the country is being driven by volunteers, from the many people who contributed their knowledge and skills to this paper through to those keeping glossy black-cockatoo chicks safe on Kangaroo Island.
Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Alienor Chauvenet, Lecturer, Griffith University; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; David M Watson, Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University; Elisa Bayraktarov, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Conservation Biology, The University of Queensland; Hayley Geyle, Research Assistant, Charles Darwin University; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; Ian Leiper, Geospatial Scientist, Charles Darwin University; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jim Radford, Principal Research Fellow, Research Centre for Future Landscapes, La Trobe University; John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Les Christidis, Professor, Southern Cross University; Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Molly K Grace, Postdoctoral Fellow in Zoology, University of Oxford; Paul McDonald, Associate professor, University of New England, and Sarah Legge, Associate Professor, Australian National University