No, Bounce Fabric Softener will NOT protect you from bugs

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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.ResearchBlogging.org

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

However.
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.

Sigh.

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

15 thoughts on “No, Bounce Fabric Softener will NOT protect you from bugs

  1. Yes, Chris. They failed, utterly.
    I will see if I can dig that reference up for you.

    Part of the problem is that there is a *huge* variability in individual attractiveness to mosquitoes. While some mild repellants may appear to work for a lucky few, in field trials with lots of people, ‘natural’ repellents almost always fail.

    There are a few trials going on right now with a couple of plant-derived chemicals that look promising, but nothing released commercially yet.

  2. Interesting, but the experiments were in closed containers and 12-18% of the fungus gnats (a single, undescribed species) consistently ended up in the arm with the Bounce. Looks like any repellent effect isn’t all that strong and there may be enough variation already present to quickly evolve Bounce-resistant gnats if they don’t have much choice (like in a home).

    If linalool (a major constituent) is the active ingredient, though, it might be fun to try planting an understory of lavender or basil in my bay and monstera pots (which seem to produce the most Bradysia). But in Alberta, Bradysia is the only insect I get to see for most of the winter, so I don’t have much problem tolerating them as long as they keep out of my wine glass.

    Given that almost the entire Introduction to the paper is devoted to Bounce and mosquito repellency, and an unstated assumption of the authors seems to be that what repels mosquitoes does the same for fungus gnats, I suppose I can see why the Lifehacker writer got confused.

  3. I didn’t read the paper that way at all–they mentioned the anecdotal data, and then went straight into the gnats.

    And it was an ok effect, but nothing to get excited about, really. It would not be effective at all in a greenhouse!

  4. Steve Nordquist

    Baby Soft ™ and lots of it is pretty famous in the local Boy Scouts for staving off medium-term bug contact. It’s sensible for the bugs to detect LDL and/or polyester (chitin-sourced or not) and be repelled on that basis alone (but a swarm of locusts is less picky!) That stuff’s…not Bounce(tm) composition (the study’s GC method found linalool, benzyl acetate, beta-citronellol, and hedione rather than LDL carrier.) What’s with the citation without disposition of the diverse (Bounce, non-Bounce greenhouse) practices, anyhow? It would be nice to have a whole rational hypothesis (i.e. a greenhouse-like experimental trope rather than simple linalool toxicology) for Bounce working to shine on that minor fan-service. (Preferably with bugs in traps indicating success at gestating eggs down in random mulches, etc. Right?)

    The caustic oils thing (lemon, bay, lavender, etc.) sound reasonable too; here at 39 longitude I’ve always been told to grow herbs (mustard family) with odd combinations together so it’s hard for bugs to move and still eat a reasonable taste combination; and to move species each year to avoid culturing vectors in soil. If they weren’t going to write a collateral practicum study and paper, doesn’t modernity at least require that they stump out a case for (or against) it as part of a green lay practice (or an exception for when something is gonna get overwatered because I am not going to go get another container and drain saucer?) (Complete with the lovely details; keep the male humans from contacting the lavender much!) On the other hand, the paper’s not behind a paywall (even if they were too shy to include pix of their tupperware in action.)

  5. Honestly. I generally am a positive person, but WHO is turning OFF their brain and then typing? I really and truly cannot understand how things like this happen. It makes me think about a conversation I had with my doctor about the beauty of language in older books, e.g. John Muir, etc. He said printing used to be very expensive so the filter between writers and getting your writing out was VERY fine. Now, with the internet, EVERYone who can type and access “the Big I” can post stuff. But, aren’t reporters supposed to be communication PROFESSIONALS? Click the link and READ THE ARTICLE. It only takes a MINUTE. (pardon. Apparently you pushed a button. =)

    THANK you for posting this and your delightful diligence and persistence. It is MUCH appreciated.

  6. JohnS

    When I was young and parents used to bring us kids to drive in movies, they used to but a product i believe called Pic. I always thought even at a young age it was more a placebo type thing . I am sure bug girl you are too young to remember these things but did they actually have an active ingredient?

  7. “I didn’t read the paper that way at all–they mentioned the anecdotal data, and then went straight into the gnats.”

    I wasn’t familiar with the Bounce effect, so perhaps we did read the Introduction differently. But, trying to be more objective, the Introduction still seems to dwell on mosquito repellents to me. For example, in the Introduction ‘mosquito’ is mentioned four times (all in relation to repellents), ‘gnat(s) five times (mostly for establishing why they are pests); 10 references (including 1 PC) relate to mosquito repellents and 17 to gnats – but 3 are self-citations and only one is related to repellents and that is shared with mosquitoes. My first impression was that they were using Bradysia as a model for mosquitoes (I didn’t know that Cloyd was Dr Bradysia).

    I wonder if there was a press release that further muddied the waters?

    In any case, I agree that it was unclear if Bounce could be used in a practical setting. In the critical experiment (Expt 3 Dryer sheet and moist growing medium versus moist growing medium) 18 of every 100 gnats went to the Bounce side and 45 to the Bounce-less side, The raw data (not provided) may be more impressive, but colour me skeptical here.

    I also wonder why they didn’t use the other four arms of the experimental containers to get a better idea how many gnats just stumbled into an arm.

  8. holy crap, Dave, you’re right. I hadn’t counted it up like that. I kind of suspect, though, that was the result of simply looking for papers about repellency–in which mozzies do dominate.

    There was, in fact, a press release which muddied the water.
    The whole thing still bugs (ha!) me, since all sorts of people are picking this “news” up and running with it. And it’s not…news. At all.

    And yes, the data was….not anything I’d run out and by dryer sheets over ;p

  9. corycampora

    When this story first tripped my Google alarm, I took special notice. A few years ago I became aware of some Marines that were in the habit of lining their humvees with sheets of fabric softner to keep insects away. At the time I told them it was a load of poppycock. I would still advise against the practice, but at least now I know a little bit about where this craziness originated from.

    Then there was the practice that I observed in Afghanistan of hanging water bottles (full of water) over the chow line to keep flies away. I never figured that one out.

  10. I think part of the problem is that a system’s developed that sends out a press release (universities, usually) whenever a paper is published.

    Except…publishing something means that you’ve moved the peanut of scientific knowledge a tiny bit forward. And you’re inviting your peers to look at what you’ve done, comment, and expand upon it.

    It does NOT mean “I proved something!!”.
    But that’s the way it’s pitched by the press release.

    I will have to chew on that thought a bit more…

  11. corycampora

    Check out these headlines from blogs reporting on a study of a single species of a small wolf spider whose less than a sixteenth of an inch size increase over a ten year period was correlated to temperature increases (or something like that):

    Ecolocalizer “Giant Spiders could be the result of global warming” – Dvorak Uncensored “Attack of the giant spiders: is global warming to blame?” – The Register “2060: Humvee-sized, bulletproof meat-eating spiders attack” – Finding Dulcinea “Tarantula invasion overblown, but more, bigger spiders may be in store”

    Granted, these are blog headlines, but in an age where only the headlines are tweeted and facebooked, very few bother to read the original paper, or even the more in depth summary of the original paper – the take home message is in the headline.

  12. Fungus gnats are indeed annoying; I’ve consumed more’n my fair share in my coffee, since the prof couldn’t be bothered with Bti or something else to quell the infestations in the host plants for our research insects. But I think the nuisance factor is more real in a production or retail greenhouse.

    But seriously, dryer sheets? Well, they repel me!

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