Scientific fact behind summer folklore remedies

Are you the type of person to get attacked by mosquitoes whilst relaxing on holiday? An estimated 20% of people are particularly susceptible to mosquito bites due to their blood type, metabolism, level of exercise or even if they have been drinking beer.

With more and more people wanting to avoid branded and possibly toxic insect repellents, many are turning back to traditional, natural remedies. Old wives’ tales to ward off these pesky insects include burning sage over coals, applying a paste of mashed garlic to bites and rubbing cider vinegar all over your skin.

Now studies have revealed that there is scientific fact behind some of these folklore remedies after investigations into the components of plants used in traditional therapies. Native North Americans have long adorned themselves and their homes with fragrant sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorate), a native plant used in traditional medicine to repel biting insects. Researchers report that they have identified the compounds in sweetgrass that keep these bugs at bay.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of Guelph and the University of Mississippi collaborated together to perform steam distillation on sweetgrass samples and evaluated its oil on the ability to deter mosquitoes from biting. They used small vials containing a feeding solution that mimicked human blood, covered with a thin membrane coated in the different substances being tested. The steam-distilled sweetgrass oil got the fewest mosquito bites, matching the repellent potency of DEET.

Further tests, including use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and mass spectrometry, were used to identify the components in the sweetgrass oil that are responsible for repelling mosquitoes.

Charles Cantrell, Ph.D, reported, “We were able to find constituents that are known to act as insect repellents in a folk remedy, and now we understand that there’s a real scientific basis to this folklore.”

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