From the Hopkins Health Watch Q&A (Questions and Answers)
Recommendations for Bug Sprays that are Safe and Natural
Q: We're about to head north to the land of lakes, mosquitoes as-big-as-birds, no-see-ums and lots of other buzzing, biting, stinging insects! I've heard some bad things about DEET recently and wonder if you have suggestions for a natural bug repellent?
A: In laboratory testing DEET is consistently the longest-lasting bug repellent. The natural bug repellents don’t last as long, but are still very effective while they last. The government agencies that regulate pesticides are inconsistent about DEET. On the one hand they say it’s safe to use, on the other they admit that side effects can be deadly.
According to the Hazardous Substances Data Bank (part of the National Library of Medicine) report on DEET, “Toxicity is primarily neurologic (encephalopathy, seizures, movement disorders, coma) and may occur via oral or dermal exposure, most commonly in children. …Confusion, ataxia, hypertonicity, and clonic jerking progressing to coma and seizures may occur after acute oral or chronic dermal exposure.” If you want to scare yourself, read the Data Bank’s report on DEET. Children have died after long-term exposure to DEET.
Here’s the real rub: Nobody seems to know why DEET can be highly toxic and even deadly in some people and not others. It moves quickly through the skin and into the bloodstream. In sensitive people it can cause permanent brain injury. Children are especially sensitive. Is it worth the risk for a few more hours of repellent power? Seems worth it to just re-apply a natural bug repellent.
And by the way, fishermen beware—DEET will melt your fishing line and anything else plastic in your tackle box. It will also damage many types of synthetic clothing such as rayon and spandex, and it will peel paint.
Natural Bug Repellents
Two of the most effective natural bug repellents are garlic and neem oil, but sadly their odor is equally repellent to humans.
Most natural bug repellents use some combination of the following oils: citronella, lemon eucalyptus, peppermint, cedar, lemongrass, geranium, lavender, basil, thyme and patchouli. The differences between them are more about what the oils are suspended in. Some are too sticky, some don’t last long enough, some separate. Some get it just right. My favorite is Herbal Armor Spray and Lotion. Most health food stores carry it, or you can find it online at All Terrain.
Un-Natural Bee Attractors and Detractors
Some years back I was giving my goddaughter a horseback riding lesson when she suddenly had bees buzzing around her and was stung. This happened repeatedly, whether we were in an arena or on the trail. Bug repellents seemed to make no difference. Finally one day she got into my car and I figured it out—she smelled like a fruity flower! Her shampoo and conditioner were of the sweet fruity flowery variety preferred by preteens. The bees didn’t care whether it was a real or fake fragrance—they were just determined to find the source. Once she switched to a less flowery shampoo and conditioner the problem went away.
Along the same lines, eating outside will attract yellowjackets. Citronella candles are good bug repellers when you're eating outside.
Scientists are working hard to find out why some people are hardly bothered by mosquitoes and others are swarmed. As for the no-see-ums, it seems they’re not particular and will chew on anything warm-blooded. In that case it's best to just cover up.