Entrepreneurs across the country are rushing to turn fears of the Zika virus into a sales tool, flooding the market with a slew of products, some of them unproven and questionable, that promise to keep consumers safe.
The products include everything from floppy hats to bed canopies to “anti-Zika” condoms which offer no discernible protection above any other condom. But most concerning to experts is the promotion of many “natural” mosquito repellents — sprays, wristbands, and patches that are touted as alternatives to the products containing synthetic chemicals known to be safe and effective at keeping mosquitoes away.
A STAT review of “natural” products marketed online turned up dozens of efforts to explicitly target consumers concerned about Zika. One company sells wristbands printed with an image of a mosquito and “ZikAway” in big block letters. A brand of stick-on patches for kids features smiley faces and is pitched on Amazon as “high-quality Zika mosquito repellent.”
Then there’s the pack of wristbands marketed on Amazon (AMZN) with the blaring warning: “PROTECT YOURSELVES FROM ZIKA VIRUS NOW (Before we run out of stock).” Ads for other botanical repellents promise to keep users away from “nasty,” “dangerous,” and “toxic” chemicals.
The marketers of many such products “prey on people’s fears” about chemicals, said Walter Leal, a chemical ecologist at the University of California, Davis. “The most dangerous outcome is that people become averse to using a good repellent and then contract Zika or dengue.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also concerned about some such products, spokeswoman Candice Burns Hoffmann said.
One reason: Many aren’t effective.
A study published last fall found that Victoria’s Secret perfume provided better protection from mosquitoes than several natural repellents on the market.
Many advertisements for natural repellents are “misleading and wrong — and in some cases preposterous — because they’re made from products that don’t work,” said Immo Hansen, a biologist at New Mexico State University who studies vector diseases and coauthored the Victoria’s Secret study.
Regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency have approved about 30 botanical products, most of them made from oil of lemon eucalyptus, as safe and effective to ward off mosquitoes. (By contrast, they have approved hundreds of products made from DEET and Picaridin, the synthetic compounds found in most effective bug sprays.)
Federal authorities have already cracked down on the marketers of one “natural” repellent.
Consumer goods maker Viatek recently agreed to pay $300,000 to the Federal Trade Commission to settle deceptive marketing charges. The company had claimed that its colorful wristbands infused with mint oil created a five-foot shield of protection from mosquitoes that could last for up to 120 hours. (The wristbands, still promoted on Home Depot’s website, were not advertised as a way to ward off Zika specifically.)
From selfie sticks to Zika Shields
That fine hasn’t deterred the Zika gold rush.
Entrepreneurs Manny Castro and Ryan Manfred, for instance, had been selling selfie sticks before they spotted a new opportunity — and launched Zika Shield. Since the end of April, they’ve sold thousands of wristbands and sprays made from a formula that contains oil of lemon eucalyptus.
The Utah company Natural Outdoor Products had already been selling repellent candles and a bug spray branded as Zero Natural. But as concern about the Zika virus grew, its executives decided to rebrand and tweak the product for worried consumers who are “tired of chemicals,” said Marc Normandeau, the company’s chief technology officer.
The result: Zika Pro Plus, made from oils from lemon eucalyptus, geranium, peppermint, and citronella.
Launched online in March, it comes in both wristband and spray formats. The brand is specifically targeting travelers to this summer’s Olympics in Brazil, where Zika cases had been surging (but are now on the decline). The Zika Pro Plus website boasts that it’s be “field tested” in Rio, and markets a “RIO 2016” pack of travel-sized products.
“Why wouldn’t we market something to people going … exactly where the virus is?” Normandeau said.
He said the company has gotten a few complaints about preying on Zika fears. But Normandeau isn’t backing down. “There’s a reality to what Zika virus does,” he said.
‘Counting on chemophobia’
There is no vaccine for the Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes or through sexual contact, and which can cause birth defects and temporary paralysis. The CDC recommends simple tips to lower risk: Wear long sleeves and long pants. Get rid of standing water. Use condoms. Wear repellent.
And most effective repellent includes synthetic chemicals.
DEET, which was originally developed by the US Army, has been used in products marketed to the public since 1957. Experts agree that it is safe, including for pregnant women; that conclusion was upheld by a large 2002 study and a 2014 review by the EPA.
The chemical is not without its drawbacks: It’s known to smell bad, though manufacturers have, in recent years, taken steps to make the aroma more pleasant. And there have been case reports of adverse effects including neuropathy, or numbness and pain in hands and feet.
But experts say these side effects are generally the result of misuse. “DEET has been used literally billions of times without adverse effects and protected people from disease,” said Joe Conlon, technical adviser to the American Mosquito Control Association.
The marketers of ineffective botanical products, Conlon said, are “counting on this chemophobia that seems to have afflicted the citizenry as of late.”