Natural Insect Repellent: Nontoxic Options for Insect Control
Safer Bug Spray: Natural Bug Repellents
- 1 Safer Bug Spray: Natural Bug Repellents
- 2 Natural Bug Repellents: What Are the Options?
- 3 Should I Use DEET?
- 4 Natural Insect Control: Other Ways to Beat the Bugs
- 5 DEET vs. Natural Insect Repellents
- 6 Common Types of Insect Repellents
- 7 Are Conventional Insect Repellents Safe?
- 8 Biopesticide or Natural Insect Repellents
- 9 DIY Natural Insect Repellents
- 10 Other Ways to Keep Bugs at Bay
- 11 Natural Bug Repellant Options: What you can use for mosquitos besides DEET
- 12 How to Choose a Non-Toxic Mosquito Repellent
With summer come the mosquito bites. And with the bug bites come the bug-borne diseases. But while the threat of West Nile virus or Lyme disease might make you uneasy, so might slathering your kids with a chemical bug repellent every day.
So how do you weigh the risks of the insects with the risks of the chemicals engineered to keep them away? Is there a natural bug repellent that works?
вЂњThis is a hard issue,вЂќ says Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group in Washington D.C. вЂњItвЂ™s one that IвЂ™ve gone through many times before, both as an expert in toxics and as a parent.вЂќ
The good news is that there are some all-natural bug killers that can keep insects off you, your kids, your pets, and your garden.
Natural Bug Repellents: What Are the Options?
The bug sprays on the market вЂ“ including ones with DEET вЂ“ have been deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, at least when used as directed. Still, many parents want to limit their kidsвЂ™ exposure to potentially toxic chemicals. So what are some natural bug repellent alternatives?
- Soy-based products. A 2002 study of mosquito repellents found that the soy-based Bite Blocker for Kids was the most effective natural alternative to DEET. This natural bug repellent offered more than 90 minutes of protection, better than some low-concentration DEET products.
- Oil of lemon eucalyptus (PMD). This natural oil, which comes from the lemon eucalyptus tree, is recommended by the CDC as an alternative to DEET. вЂњIt seems to work really well, but hasnвЂ™t got a lot of attention,вЂќ says Lunder. Several studies have found this natural bug repellent as effective as DEET in repelling mosquitoes. It may also work well against ticks. Oil of lemon eucalyptus may be poisonous if ingested in high quantities. According to the CDC it should not be used on kids under 3.
- Other products. Researchers have tested many other so-called natural bug repellents like citronella, peppermint oil, and other plant-based oils. Unfortunately, studies have not found them particularly effective.
For instance, while catnip seemed promising, a 2005 study showed it significantly less effective than DEET in preventing mosquito bites. The 2002 study showed that various formulations of citronella could keep mosquitoes at bay, but only for up to an hour. AvonвЂ™s Skin-So-Soft Bath Oil вЂ“ long rumored to be an effective bug repellent вЂ“ only kept mosquitoes away for 30 minutes or less.
Should I Use DEET?
Given that natural bug repellents like oil of lemon eucalyptus work, should you swear off products with DEET? Lunder says it depends on your situation.
вЂњIf youвЂ™re just dealing with mosquitoes that are a nuisance, natural repellants may be fine, although you may have to apply them more often,вЂќ says Lunder. вЂњBut if youвЂ™re in an area where mosquitoes are known to be carrying disease, you may want to go with something really strong like DEET.вЂќ
If you do decide to use a DEET insect repellent, do it wisely. Lunder reminds people that DEET is an insecticide and it can affect the nervous system. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using repellents with no more than a 30% concentration of DEET for kids over 2 months. Don’t apply insect repellent to kids younger than 2 months. If you’re not going to be outdoors as long, you may want to choose a repellent with a lower concentration of DEET. A 10% concentration of DEET protects for about two hours.
If possible, Lunder recommends putting repellents with DEET on your clothing instead of your skin. Look for a pump spray instead of aerosol, so your child doesn’t breathe in as much of the chemical. Don’t apply DEET to your child’s hands, and always wash your own hands after touching a DEET insect repellent вЂ“ especially before handling food. Wash your child’s skin to remove any repellent when they come back indoors.
Natural Insect Control: Other Ways to Beat the Bugs
Natural bug sprays arenвЂ™t the only nontoxic ways that you can fight back against mosquito bites and other bugs. Here are some other approaches to natural insect control вЂ“ see which ones work and which donвЂ™t.
- Long sleeves and pants. Yes, itвЂ™s probably obvious. But one good form of natural insect control is to cover your arms and legs. While a mosquito might be able to get through very thin clothing, moderately thick fabric will stop them. вЂњNo mosquito is going to bite you through a canvass shirt,вЂќ says Lunder.
- Fans. HereвЂ™s a natural insect control tip. Mosquitoes have trouble maneuvering in wind. So when youвЂ™re sitting out on our porch, think about using a window fan or overhead fan. The mosquitoes will have trouble getting near you.
- Environmental control. Eliminate standing water in your yard, which will prevent mosquitoes from breeding. Empty bird baths weekly and fill puddles with dirt.
- Citronella candles. Despite the lore, citronella candles вЂ“ or other natural bug repellent candles вЂ“ donвЂ™t seem to work very well. They could even have risks. вЂњIвЂ™d caution people about burning bug-repellent products, like citronella candles,вЂќ says Lunder. вЂњInhalation is a very direct form of exposure, so youвЂ™re breathing in whatever chemicals are in the product.вЂќ
- Bug zappers. DonвЂ™t bother. Sure, they may electrocute loads of bugs, but they usually kill beneficial insects that eat pests or serve as food for birds. One study showed that of all the insects slaughtered by bug zappers, a mere 0.13% were biting mosquitoes.
- Ultrasonic devices. Again, donвЂ™t bother. They donвЂ™t work.
- Traps. Relatively new on the scene, these devices use various methods to attract and then trap mosquitoes. Many give off carbon dioxide, mimicking a breathing animal or person. While they certainly do trap mosquitoes, experts arenвЂ™t sure how well they control mosquito populations in a given area. YouвЂ™ll also have to decide whether the device itself вЂ“ which might run on a gas-powered engine вЂ“ is preferable to the bugs.
- Permethrin-treated products. Permethrin is a kind of chemical repellent thatвЂ™s added to some clothing, shoes, and camping gear. While the idea of wearing a shirt treated with an insecticide might make you uneasy, Lunder points out that it has an advantage.
вЂњItвЂ™s not being applied directly on your skin, so it could be a really good option,вЂќ she tells WebMD. However, Lunder cautions that you should probably wash permethrin-treated clothing separately from other laundry. Like DEET, permethrin is a neurotoxin that can affect the nervous system. You may want to weigh using either chemical against the risk of disease-carrying insects.
Sonya Lunder, MPH, senior analyst, Environmental Working Group, Washington, D.C.
Kate Puttgen, MD, pediatric dermatologist, Johns Hopkins ChildrenвЂ™s Center, Baltimore.
American Academy of Pediatrics web site: вЂњSummer Safety Tips.вЂќ
American Mosquito Control Association web site: вЂњFAQ.вЂќ
CDC web site: вЂњCDC Adopts New Repellent Guidance for Upcoming Mosquito Season,вЂќ вЂњUpdated Information Regarding Insect Repellents,вЂќ вЂњWest Nile Virus: Questions and Answers.вЂќ
Consumer Reports web site: вЂњUpdate: Another Good Mosquito Repellent.вЂќ
Environmental Protection Agency web site: вЂњCitizen’s Guide to Pest Control and Pesticide Safety,вЂќ вЂњMethods of Mosquito Control.вЂќ
Fradin, M. and Day, J., New England Journal of Medicine, July 4, 2002; vol 347: pp 13-18.
Kamlesh, R. Journal of Medical Entomology, July 2005; vol 42: pp 643-646.
DEET vs. Natural Insect Repellents
To find safe, effective, and natural insect repellents that are an alternative to DEET, you have to scratch below the surface. In addition to the usual greenwashing and other marketing hype, you’ll find lots of conflicting information as well as some rather sketchy, fear-based «scientific reports.»
There are two main types of repellents: conventional repellents containing synthetic chemical compounds, and «biopesticide» repellents that contain natural, plant-based compounds.
Common Types of Insect Repellents
Of the four ingredients widely acknowledged as effective insect repellents, the first two are conventional repellents, and the last two are considered biopesticides:
- Lemon eucalyptus oil
There are also dozens of other plant-based oils touted as effective repellents (citronella oil, rosemary oil, cinnamon oil, etc.). Most studies have shown that these don’t work well or need to be reapplied so often — every 20 minutes in some cases — that they’re just not practical to use. You can sometimes find these plant-based oils added to repellents that contain other, more effective ingredients.
Are Conventional Insect Repellents Safe?
DEET has been used by the general public as a bug repellent since 1957. As long as it’s used as directed, DEET has been considered safe by groups such as the American Academy of Pediatricians and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the «use-as-directed» instructions require that DEET be washed off the skin after coming indoors, as well as other specifics (don’t get it near the mouth or on children’s hands, etc.). There are reports of adverse reactions to DEET, including seizures and skin rashes, though these are rare. There is also some evidence that extensive, long-term exposure to DEET is associated with higher rates of insomnia, mood disorders, and impaired cognitive function.
An August 2009 study from France found that DEET may have a toxic effect on the nervous systems of mammals as well as insects. This disturbing discovery calls into question the presumed safety of DEET, the world’s most widely-used insect repellent.
Picaridin — another conventional insect repellent which, after years of successful use in Europe and Australia — was introduced into the U.S. in 2005. Highly effective and widely recognized as safe, picaridin is the active ingredient in Cutter Advanced Insect Repellent and Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard.
Both picaridin and DEET are believed to have negligible effects on the natural environment. One advantage these two chemical compounds carry over some plant-based insect repellents is their effectiveness at repelling ticks, including those that carry Lyme disease.
Biopesticide or Natural Insect Repellents
Biopesticide or natural insect repellents (sometimes called «botanical» or «plant-based») have been proven to be as effective as those containing synthetic chemical compounds such as DEET. Remember, however, that «natural insect repellent» doesn’t always mean safe, so you should use plant-based insect repellents as carefully as any other. Follow the instructions — and your common sense — when using any potentially harmful product, especially when children or pregnant women are involved.
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
Oil of lemon eucalyptus is a potent repellent, effective against mosquitoes, deer ticks, and other pests. A synthetic form of lemon eucalyptus oil, PMD, has proven effective as well. Both compounds are found in several repellent brands marketing themselves as natural.
Parents should note that lemon eucalyptus oil is not considered safe for children under the age of three.
Though it sounds robotic, IR3535 is a plant-based compound which has been used in Europe for decades as an insect repellent. It works well against mosquitoes, biting flies, and ticks, and is found in Avon Skin So Soft Plus IR3535 and other products.
DIY Natural Insect Repellents
If you’re determined to avoid any commercial repellent, you can try making your own at home. Dozens of recipes for do-it-yourself insect repellents available; most contain a base of alcohol or a «carrier oil,» and one or more of the following ingredients:
- Cedarwood oil
- Tea tree oil
- Geranium oil
- Rosemary oil
- Lemongrass oil
- Citronella oil
- Eucalyptus oil
- Cinnamon oil
These might not be as long-lasting as commercial preparations, so plan on reapplying these repellents once or twice an hour. And be aware that people, as well as insects, can have a negative response to these oils. Skin rashes and other reactions have been known to occur.
Other Ways to Keep Bugs at Bay
Of course, there are plenty of non-chemical ways to avoid mosquitoes and other pests. Wearing long-sleeved shirts, pants instead of shorts, and shoes instead of sandals will thwart many bugs. Though these don’t seem like great options in hot summer weather, thin, loose-fitting clothes are often just as comfortable and have the double benefit of helping you avoid sunburn and UV skin damage. Another sun-smart fashion tip —a broad-brimmed hat — works well at keeping bugs away from your head.
Try using a fan to ward off mosquitoes (they can’t stand a breeze) and stay indoors during peak mosquito hours, usually twilight through early morning. Also, avoid using perfume, scented soaps, and cologne, as these send out the «All You Can Eat Buffet» signal to mosquitoes and other biting insects. Even scented fabric softeners and dryer sheets have been implicated as bug magnets.
Natural Bug Repellant Options: What you can use for mosquitos besides DEET
In the warm summer months, you’re probably spending a lot more time outside, and there are some pesky companions who are sharing the fresh air with you — mosquitos. It’s no secret that mosquito bites are one of the most annoying parts of the summer season, especially as humidity rises and bugs flock to the nearest and sweetest surface they can find (aka your skin). Bug spray keeps the pests away but could it be doing more harm than good? How important is it to use non-toxic mosquito repellent?
With concerns about West Nile virus still very much alive and well, it’s more important than ever that you and your children use insect repellent regularly. Harry Savage, chief of ecology and entomology activity at the CDC‘s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, suggests “using an insect repellent is one of the best ways you can protect yourself from West Nile and other diseases transmitted by mosquitoes.”
How to Choose a Non-Toxic Mosquito Repellent
The trick is to find a non-toxic mosquito repellent that is also approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the CDC, “when used as directed, EPA-registered insect repellents are proven safe and effective, even for pregnant and breastfeeding women.”
If you’re looking for safe mosquito repellent, you’re not alone. A lot of people are worried about the negative effects of toxic bug spray and are searching for a safer, more natural alternative to protect themselves and their families.
So, what do you need to look for in terms of natural mosquito repellent? While study findings show that DEET is the most effective ingredient in the fight against mosquito bites and vector-borne illnesses, there are a few other active ingredients that are derived from plants and effectively help defend your skin against mosquito bites. Consumer Reports found that picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus both work well to prevent bug bites.
It’s important to note that these ingredients are both “chemically synthesized ingredients but more similar to natural compounds than DEET; they also come with fewer side effects,” according to Time . So what are they?
Picaridin is “a synthetic compound first made in the 1980s. It was made to resemble the natural compound piperine, which is found in the group of plants that are used to produce black pepper.”
Oil of lemon eucalyptus, otherwise known as OLE, is “an oil extracted from the gum eucalyptus tree (native to Australia); the actual extracted chemical is called PMD and has demonstrated efficacy as an insect repellent.” When used as directed, repellent with an OLE base has been shown to work for approximately 7 hours without reapplying, but be careful with your children. Studies have only tested this product on adults, and the CDC doesn’t recommend using it on any children under the age of 3.
Our Choice for A Natural Bu Repellent: Greenerways Organic
Regardless of what kind of mosquito repellent you choose, there are some general rules that apply across the board. The CDC suggest that you always follow the usage instructions on the repellent label, reapply often (or as directed), and apply your sunscreen first before you spray any insect repellent. If you choose an insect repellent that is all-natural, it will typically contain botanical ingredients such as lemon grass, citronella, peppermint, geraniol, soybean, and rosemary.
If you are looking for a DEET-free bug repellant with staying power, we recommend Greenerways Organic Bug Repellent, which is available on Amazon here.
Remember, always practice safe habits during the buggy season. Wear clothing that covers your arms and legs when possible and avoid grassy areas especially during dusk and dawn or when it is extremely humid outside.