Citronella Candles Don’t Really Work. Stop Buying Them.

Mosquitoes are relentless. They swarm and buzz and bite, leaving you covered in itchy red welts. Some spread diseases, such as Zika and West Nile viruses. There are countless mosquito deterrents on the market that promise to keep the little pests at bay, but much of what’s said to be effective doesn’t actually do anything to stop mosquitoes from biting.

Whether you’re planning a backyard get-together for Memorial Day or thinking ahead to a summer spent outdoors, don’t let mosquitoes ruin a good time. Here’s what doesn’t work—and what does.

Why citronella and other gimmicky mosquito repellents don’t work

A Cutter Citro-Guard candle, shown in a metal container with a mosquito repelling bracelet in the foreground.
Photo: Sarah Kobos

Citronella, an essential oil distilled from a type of lemongrass, has long been regarded as a “natural” mosquito repellent. Citronella oil is used in many different forms—from tabletop candles to oil diffusers to 5-foot tiki torches—to attempt to keep the pests at bay.

But the truth is there’s no indication that citronella candles provide more protection than any other candle-produced smoke. This is because essential oils don’t offer as substantial an invisible shield as EPA-approved repellents like DEET and picaridin do.

A mosquito interprets the world through multiple chemical receptors, according to Laurence Zwiebel, the chair of biological science at Vanderbilt University. Essential oils block only a limited number of those receptors, and Zwiebel told senior staff writer Doug Mahoney that he wasn’t certain an essential oil that worked for one species would work across a range of others. As Doug writes in a post about essential oils as bug repellents, “Repellents such as picaridin and DEET, on the other hand, block a much wider number of receptors on a more consistent basis.”

Though Citronella is the most ubiquitous of these so-called mosquito repellents, it isn’t the only one that doesn’t work. Here are a few more:

Bug zappers. Although bug zappers are effective at killing bugs, they unfortunately target the wrong kind. Mosquitoes aren’t necessarily drawn to light sources the way other bugs are, so zappers mostly take down the type of bugs that sustain your local ecosystem. In a post on bug zappers, Doug writes, “Because of the irresistible lure of their light, bug zappers are incredibly effective at killing bugs. The only problem: They aren’t killing the bugs that bother you.” A study from the University of Delaware tracked six residential bug zappers over a 10-week period and found that of the 13,789 insects killed, only 31 were biting flies (including mosquitoes). “That’s a sad 0.22%.”

Mosquito traps. Our experts found that mosquito traps don’t live up to their marketing claims. In Wirecutter’s mosquito control gear guide, Joe Conlon, then technical advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association, told Doug that both propane- and UV-based traps will capture mosquitos, but these traps are just not as attractive to the pests as humans are.

Repellent bracelets. Though it’s true that some of these bracelets are made with active ingredients that could be off-putting to mosquitoes, those repellents aren’t concentrated enough to have a wide-reaching effect. Mosquitoes will likely avoid the bracelet, but they will also likely land and bite you elsewhere.

Sound-based products. At least 10 studies in the past 15 years have denounced ultrasonic devices as having “no repellency value whatsoever,” Conlon told Doug in the guide to the best mosquito control gear.

Mosquito-repelling methods that actually work

The best spatial repellent for mosquitoes, Thermacell E55 Rechargeable Mosquito Repeller
Photo: Sarah Kobos

Unfortunately, there isn’t one single solution to mosquito control that works 100% of the time, Doug writes in Wirecutter’s guide to the best mosquito control gear. “Mosquitoes are famously resilient, and with nearly 175 species recognized in the US alone, there is a lot that people don’t yet know about their behavior.”

However, our experts were able to find a handful of mosquito repellents that actually do work in most situations. The Thermacell E55, a rechargeable spatial mosquito repellent, shields an entire area, instead of just one person. As Doug explains in the guide, the device uses heat to “vaporize a little vial of liquid repellent, which slowly disperses out of the unit, protecting an area from mosquitoes and other biting insects.” The E55 is not only almost as effective at warding away pests as a full application of bug spray repellent, it’s also silent and odorless.

If you need something more durable that can survive a romp in the woods, the Thermacell MR450 Armored Portable Mosquito Repeller is a good choice. The MR450 is more portable than the E55, which makes it better for camping or sporting events. But its butane cartridge is less convenient than our top pick’s rechargeable battery. And a downside to Thermacell products is that they lose effectiveness in breezy conditions.

Surprisingly, a simple fan is another good way to keep mosquitoes at bay. The pests are notoriously weak fliers, so circulating air can stop the bugs from reaching you. Deputy editor Annemarie Conte likes the rechargeable Geek Aire fan for its portability. Because mosquitoes tend to fly low, Doug recommends keeping a fan at knee level to deter them.