I usually like Lifehacker, but in this case, FAIL. Here’s a story they ran 2 weeks ago:
Bounce Fabric Softener Keeps Mosquitoes and Gnats Away
Some people have sworn by the power of Bounce dryer sheets—and specifically Bounce, too—to keep mosquitoes away from them, and gnats out of their garden. Now scientists have proven the power of fluffy white sheets as an insect repellent.
Lifehacker wasn’t the only media group that picked up on this story; and pretty much all of them made the same mistake.
When you look at the actual research paper, what you see is that some of what was reported was correct. There actually WAS a paper that examined the repellency of Bounce dryer sheets to insects.
Raymond A. Cloyd, et al. (2010). Bounce® Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets Repel Fungus Gnat, Bradysia sp. nr. coprophila (Diptera: Sciaridae), Adults.
HortScience, 45, 1830-1833
There is a very large difference between a fungus gnat and a mosquito. That’s rather like reporting that the care and feeding of cats and humans are interchangeable. Since, you know, we’re all mammals, right?
Let’s start with what a fungus gnat is, and when you’d be likely to encounter them.
Basically, fungus gnats don’t bite. They just annoy. They’re likely to be the tiny things flitting around the soil of your potted plants. They can be a commercial pest in greenhouses, but generally they are just a nuisance. They breed in moist soil and nibble on roots.
I think everyone knows what mosquitoes are–a biting fly that can carry major human diseases. They breed in water and adult females require a blood meal from a host to reproduce.
Not. The. Same.
This is an important difference, and it is a difference that has human health implications. If you go out in an area where there are disease-carrying mosquitoes with just a pocket full of dryer sheets as your protection, you are taking a risk with your health.
Media make mistakes covering science news all the time–but in this case, it’s a taxonomic mistake that could literally cost someone their life. (Ok, I’m overstating it a bit. But, in THEORY, I’m right.)
Now that I’ve impressed upon you what’s at stake, let’s look at the actual experiment, shall we?
The authors tested the repellency of the dryer sheets in a very controlled situation, and were successful at reducing the number of fungus gnats in test chambers containing a dryer sheet. At the end of their paper there is this caveat:
However, there are still important issues that need to be resolved, including the residual effects (based on age of dryer sheets) and effective distance of repellency, response in a no-choice situation (if dryer sheets are placed into each petri dish), impact on fungus gnat larval populations, and ultimately plant damage.
Now, every scientific paper ends this way. Here’s what we did, and here’s how it’s uncovered a whole host of new questions for us to answer! Continued employment, yay!
What I, as a gardener, would draw from this experiment is that it certainly couldn’t hurt to put a Bounce fabric sheet near my potted plants, if I happened to have a fabric sheet laying around.
But I would not, in a bajilion years, jump to the conclusion that it would protect me from all biting insects.
Long link to the paper, since the Researchblogging code keeps messing up blog code
Raymond A. Cloyd, et al. (2010). Bounce® Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets Repel Fungus Gnat, Bradysia sp. nr. coprophila (Diptera: Sciaridae), Adults. HortScience, 45, 1830-1833