Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Magic Spiral of Mosquito Incense Coil

My childhood summers were spent mostly outdoors, till very late at night. The Mediterranean nights are balmy, warm entities with inviting arms, when the nature is still buzzing in full force, the sky is pitch black but the stars can be clearly seen, and the energy from the sun-soaked bodies which have enjoyed their siesta in the early afternoon (unless us children rebelled by sneaking out of the room as soon as the elders slept to catch cicadas) take a long time to unwind and get ready for a good night's sleep. It was only natural that staying out so long produced its own pattern of rituals: backgammon-playing by the blue-tinged lights of the terraced porch watching the boats dock at the bay in the distance, chasing frogs by the small watering poodles in the yard, hanging fresh herbs from the fields upside down to dry, raiding the fridge for watermelon & feta cheese if bored and of course the "ceremony" of lighting incense coils for repelling mosquitos at sundown. Those tiny insects sure knew how to bite if left unattended, making us scratch and scratch our legs ad infinitum...or so it seemed.

We affectionally called that spiral (hey, we still do!) φιδάκι "fee-THA-ki", i.e. "little snake", due to its shape. These mosquito coils have their detractors who can't stand the smoky smell; they insist the product relies on a placebo effect ~one's mental perception of the insect bites is blunted by the fumes, as if smoking cannbis or something (come to think of it, the smell does have a cannabis note in there). And they have their ardent fans who love them just because of that particular smelly smoke they emit. You can count me among the latter...I just love it; does this come as any surprise?
Typically mosquito coils in this part of the world (and in Asia) are held at the center of a spiral, suspending it in the air, or wedged by two pieces of fireproof nettings to allow continuous smoldering. Burning begins at the outer end of the spiral, slowly progressing toward the centre, taking hours; a process that is as navel-gazingly, painfully slow as to render it almost a philosophical pastime.

Katori Senkou mosquito coil ad, 1900-1929, originally uploaded by Gatochy.

Do not be fooled, the history of the mosquito coil is an old one, as befits these pastimes, clicking audibly like the amber on a lazy man's beads: Pyrethrum (Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium) was used for centuries as an insecticide in Persia and Europe and the mosquito coil was developed around 1890s by a Japanese business man, Eiichiro Ueyama. The Japanese used to combine pyrethrum powder with sawdust and burn it in a brazier or incense burner. Initially, Ueyama created incense sticks mixed from starch powder, dried mandarin orange skin powder, and pyrethrum powder. It was his wife who had the idea of coiling the incense into a spiral so as to extend the duration of the mosquito-repellent smoke for maximum practicality and his company, Dainihon Jochugiku Co. Ltd, became a powerful player in the game of insect repellent products.

The variety we used to buy ~and still buy~ locally has always been a vivid, dark forest green. I don't know if this is indicative of a specific formulation, as I have also seen coils in tan and deep brown in other parts of the world. These mosquito coils have a very distinctive scent: sweetish like a sweet-shop burnt sugar note, intoxicating and resinous, with smoky, incense-y peppery notes; a mingled aroma that oscillates between sassafras, labdanum, cloves and camphor/eucalyptus. But how does the mosquito coil work, you ask. And what about the origin of that scent?

The active ingredients in mosquito coil are pyrethrins, naturally occurring in the seed cases of the perennial plant pyrethrum (Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium, grown mainly in Kenya, the Med coast of Dalmatia in Croatia and in Japan), which has long been grown commercially for its insect repellent properties. Pyrethrins are chemically classified as terpenoids, being derived from dimethylallyl pyrophosphate, which combine by the action of the enzyme chrysanthemyl diphosphate synthase. The extract of the pyrethrum plant is solvent-extracted and yields pyrethrin I and II, cinerin I and II, and jasmolin I and II [the I tagged molecules are esters of chrysanthemic acid, while the II tagged molecules are esters of pyrethric acid]. That's enough of chemistry though. I'm pretty sure that besides the naturally gasoline and terpenes scent of the active ingredients in the coil there are additives which impart a more complex "bouquet" so to speak, rendering the coil pleasant smelling. The sticky brown residue that remains if you burn on a ceramic disk is viscous enough and bittersweet-smelling enough with amber-leather facets to suggest that a smidgen of labdanum incense is indeed used.

I have heard that the OFF mosquito coils sold in the US are also pleasant smelling with an incense whiff (and they're green too!), though I haven't been able to compare side by side so far. And mosquito coils are apparently not that new in that market either, which gives a nicely vintage-y factor to it all! Vintage coils even surface on Ebay, proving their cult status I suppose.

For all its sweet, smoky scent, certain precautions are of course de rigeur when using a mosquito coil, as with everything involving use of chemical and combustible materials: You should only use mosquito coils outdoors (being the equivalent of smoking 57 cigarettes if indoors!), never leave it burning close to anything in risk of catching fire (though it burns without a flame, it can transmit heat and produce sparks into combustible materials) and not use it more than occasionally -if that- if pregnant, especially during the 3rd semester. The pyrethroids in particular (used synergistically in some coils) are considered xenoestrogens [Garey et al., 1998], so take care if concerned, as should people with asthma and respiratory ailments. Also best avoid if you keep cats or fish, as it can be toxic to them if used by accident or they're exposed to the fumes. [For a full list of health/environmental concerns you can consult this article. ]

Pyrethrins are not fatal to insects in low doses ~especially to these modern, "mutant" ones which seems to have escaped from camp movie Mimic~ but they do have some sort of repelling action on them still. At the very least, these incense coils provide a smoky, scented ambience that is very evocative of the languor and mysticism of an exotic part of the world. Can't knock that.


  1. Do Greeks and Italians have the same antropological (let's say so) references? Of course my family used (and uses) the dark green coils. Also inside - given the stubborn absence of window nets, my parents put the coils in the open windows.

    A little ritual to mention is the difficult act of separating the intertwined coils (only those in the know will understand). Which is more and more difficult if one is past 80. And thus a constant source of bickering between my parents.

    never tried the local (ie US) variety though.


  2. Miss Heliotrope02:27

    Used to see them around here - and have seen (but can no longer find for sale) tshirts with mosquito coil images on them (company seems to have gone bust)...

    We tend to use lavender oil sprayed on exposed skin, which also helps take the itch away when yo do get bitten. So does tea tree oil...

  3. M,

    very possibly! I personally feel a kinship with Italians and Spaniards in many regards (Serbians, Croatians, Turkish in others), there are some deeply ingrained habits and traditions that seem to respond to the same need. What part of Italy are your parents from?

    Yup, those are the ones, the coils difficult enough to entangle! (they tend to break if you put too much pressure, as you know, to separate them, but I have found that even in pieces one can hold those pieces standing up in a pot with a plant and light them up to smoke; only they last less of course -which is fine as the whole coil takes a LOOOOOOOONG time to burn out completely).

    I'd love to take them indoors, but I'm too scared to do it. No netting here either, which is a very grave amiss (can't leave windows totally open at night without some insect crawling its way in). I suppose that netting is a prerequisite in tropical climates and our own native temperate climates didn't necessitate it before. Now that the weather is taking a change for the more humid and hotter it's become something that needs to be changed.

  4. C,

    ah....companies going bust. I think you should be getting some via the Eastern shops there in Oz: Asians are big on them (they do use those hanging coils that are formed like an "opened" spiral hanging down)

    I haven't found lavender oil doing anything for repelling,sadly, though it's good for soothing afterwards. Tea tree I haven't tried extensively, so can't argue. I only use for "disinfecting" when doing a DIU pedicure. I know it's huge in Oz!
    The only thing that works for mosquitos is strong camphor/eycalyptus scents, but for that very reason (potency, camphorous smell) it's something I can't stand on myself on any significant amount. Basil on the window sill is nice (and very traditional apart from very aromatic), though not that effective any more with these mutant mosquitos we get....

  5. cociolph23:48

    Charming post, but I still don't know why these coils that please you are not pleasant for mosquitos. What do the active ingredients do to keep them away?

  6. Miss Heliotrope01:14

    I always find it puzzling how few places do have screens on their windows - yes, they may not be tropical, but I've read about midges & whatnot everywhere from Scotland to Canada -

    Everywhere gets insects - except those odd places (some in the US) where they spray the landscape to stop them, which is more evil than anything Sauron came up with.

    (We have the coils, it's the tshirts with pix of coils on them that have gone...)

  7. Coclio,

    they act on their nerve receptors, making it very hard for them to withstand them. The added boosters also don't allow them to metabolize the pyretrhrins so they're toast, so to speak.

  8. C,

    yeah, screens are practical things. Beat me why not.

    Oh right, just the t-shirts. Probably because they resemble promoting pot or similar? ;-)

  9. MariaA08:53

    Had so much fun reading this !!! Lovely tribute to the fidaki! At some point at the supermarkets I spotted blue ones and being my favorite color I bought them. Smelled exactly the same though only the color changed! There are places though like Soufli where the mosquitos actually sit on them as they are the worst breed of mosquitos known to mankind!!

  10. Anonymous17:50

    Thanks for the memories, I had totally forgotten about those mosquito coils! My family used the PIC brand, and I remember my fascination with watching the glowing end burning slowly, and the plume of smoke rising languidly into the air. Can't remember how they smelled though!

  11. Anonymous22:13

    I am so glad you wrote this... I love this smell so much and admitting it public me has afforded me strange looks. I do not know if it is just the childhood memories association or the incensy, burnt smell itself that moves me. I also love the smell of papier d'Armenie, the smell of bonfires, the smell of an extinguished match. Such a lovely post :)

  12. M,

    blue ones I haven't tried, but I am glad to hear the scent is unchanged! :-)

    The mosquitos that have been coming these past couple of years are something else. I blame it all on the boosted humidity and heat of the summers we're getting lately. It used to be drier and thus easier to combat this problem.

  13. P,

    you're welcome. It's a bit of historical note-taking and a bit of nostalgia for me, so it combines the best of both worlds. The ceremony of the lighting and the smoky trail is a sight to behold, true. But the scent....ah, the scent...

  14. C,

    I'm so glad you shared this here with me! We have such a common ground of memories it makes perfect sense to hear you say so (I love all those other scents you mention too, probably because they all share some common pleasant memories too).

    BTW, I know that you're talking about people eyeing you strangely. I have heard many say they love the smell of the coil (a Serbian friend is a notable example for someone out of this particular local "pool" of people, she also likes the scent of Greek pharmacies, the ambience she says, which is theme for another post I guess) and I have also heard many recoil from the scent and find it too "thick" or or something. I don't know. The fact that it comes from an insect repellent I believe has a lot to do with it. ;-)

    BTW, I also get the strange looks when I mention extinguished matches (instant panic looks) -and burn garbage on the great big salt plains in summertime- when I admit to liking the scent of them myself! "Burning garbage? That's garbage we're talking about here, what's good about it?")

  15. When I first came to Japan, mosquito coils were the olfactory background to summer. Nowadays, there is much more air conditioning, so the coils seem to be less common (but still widely available--maybe they are still used out in the country). Cold barley tea is still ubiquitous in summer. The active ingredient in the coils was at one time called 'Dalmatian chrysanthemum.' Now they are using synthetic pyrethrins.


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