Do Natural Bug Repellents Actually Work?
A few years ago, the slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry” was coined. It was a catchy phrase, and soon everyone was saying it. After a while, people started to believe it; I mean, they applied the concept to every aspect of life.
Unfortunately, many products on the market cause more harm than good for people, animals and the environment. Sometimes, it’s the active ingredients that make the product toxic, and sometimes it’s the inactive ingredients. On occasion products will contain several mildly harmful ingredients that become highly toxic when combined.
Commercially sold bug repellents commonly contain toxic chemicals such as DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), permethrin, metofluthrin, picaridin (2-(2-hydroxyethyl)-1-piperidinecarboxylic acid 1-methylpropyl ester), IR3535 (3-[N-butyl-N-acetyl]-aminopropionic acid, ethyl ester) and PMD (para-menthane-3,8-diol). They may also contain parabens, phthalates, artificial fragrances, alcohols, preservatives, and other unlisted chemicals. Many companies lump inactive ingredients together and label them as a trade secret, so you have no idea what is in them.
Some of the synthetic repellents are formulated after a natural compound found in nature. For instance, PMD is a synthetic version of unrefined lemon eucalyptus oil, which comes from the gum eucalyptus tree. PMD is often referred to as Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (the FDA uses the terms interchangeably) which can make identifying whether the active ingredient is natural or synthetic tricky. Picaridin, also listed as icaridin, is similar to piperine, the active ingredient in black pepper and the black pepper essential oil.
Due to consumers’ concerns about applying chemical insect repellents to themselves and their children, companies developed “natural” insect repellents. The active ingredients in these products are botanical in nature, meaning they contain active ingredients of certain plants.
When tested for effectiveness, in many instances, the natural products worked as good, if not better than the chemical based insect repellent. But then again, in many cases, the natural repellent hardly worked at all.
For people with sensitive skin, specific medical problems, and adults wanting to avoid applying chemicals to themselves and their children, the inconsistencies in effectiveness provide a real dilemma.
The Controversy over DEET
DEET is an insect repellent that was developed by the United States Army in 1946. It is known to prevent bites from mosquitoes, biting flies, fleas, ticks, and many small flying insects. It is colorless, is fairly water-resistant, and has only a slight odor. DEET was registered with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and began appearing in products for general public use in 1957.
In the last 60 years, DEET and products containing DEET have been used worldwide, especially in areas with high infestations of disease carrying mosquitoes and ticks. After billions of people in many countries have used DEET containing products, DEET is considered by many to have low health risks, and is relatively harmless to the environment when used as directed.
Although products are sold with up to 100% DEET, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) recommends using a maximum strength of 50% DEET. Studies indicate that DEET is effective from 10% to 30% in concentration. A 10% concentration is effective up to 2 hours, while a 30% concentration is effective at repelling bugs for up to 5 hours. Concentrations above 30% do not provide longer protection.
The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend using more than 30% concentration on children; and does not recommend any insect repellent for children under 2 months of age. Other organizations, such as the Canadian Health Organization, recommend no more than a 10% concentration on children as young as 12 years old, and no products containing DEET on children under 6 months of age.
While there is not a high instance of reported health issues associated with the use of DEET, some reports may give you reason to evaluate whether using DEET is necessary for the area in which you will be. Keep in mind the strength of the concentration and the number of times it is used per day and per week. Also, be aware that children absorb more through their skin than adults.
Skin and eye irritation are the most commonly reported side effects of using DEET. Other reports include rashes, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, nausea, shortness of breath, muscle and joint pain, and headaches. In rare cases, there have been reports of seizures, slurred speech, and tremors (indicating a neurological effect). The risks of using products containing DEET during pregnancy are not known.
The EPA recommends when using DEET, to avoid spraying products on your face to minimize risk of getting it in your eyes or breathing in the vapors, washing your hands right away, cover as much exposed skin as possible, do not use under clothing, and washing skin and clothes as soon as practical after applying.
Why Some Repellents Work Better for Some People
Since DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, PMD, and other similar chemicals are insect repellents and are not designed to kill insects, like permethrin which kills ticks, how exactly do they work? Science still doesn’t know how DEET really works but it is assumed that it works the same as other repellents by blocking insects from detecting odors and carbon dioxide given off by humans and other mammals.
Which is the basis for commercially available insect repellents labelled “natural”, as well as homemade varieties. In both cases, ingredients include extracts of plants that naturally repel bugs like mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, gnats and biting flies.
Many of the homemade recipes include certain essential oils, and strong smelling additives such as vinegar (which doesn’t have much of an odor once dry), lemon juice, and even neem oil.
With every recipe you find on the internet or in books on making your own insect repellent, there are scores of comments from people who have used the recipe with great success or who had no luck with it at all. Some experts even claim that their recipe is superior to DEET and other chemical insect repellents; most of the time these claims are made after a personal experience where they received no bites while people using other products were eaten alive.
Generally speaking, though, the same is true for most products that claim to repel biting insects. In fact, not everyone attracts mosquitoes to the same degree. Some people seem to never be bothered by mosquitos while others are bitten countless times even after they applied a repellent. Some people seem to attract more ticks than others, as well.
Since it is generally agreed upon that biting insects find their victim through smell, there are all kinds of recommendations out there on how to make yourself less attractive to them. Some of the more popular recommendations include eating garlic or taking a garlic supplement, avoiding drinking alcohol, and avoiding eating bananas; some even recommend taking a vitamin B1 supplement every day.
It stands to reason that a person’s body chemistry is what makes the biggest difference in how much bugs are attracted to them. A good bit of a person’s body chemistry is determined by what they eat and drink. Other contributing factors may include their general health, blood type, and pH.
And just like one perfume smells differently on different people, insect repellent combines with each person’s body chemistry to create a different odor and overall effect.
Often times, individuals who are experimenting with making their own insect repellent have already changed their diet from the standard diet of fast food and processed foods to a diet that is more plant based and holistic. They may have even started using bodycare products that contain less chemicals than commonly used products.
A Close Up Look at Natural Insect Repellents
The most effective natural insect repellent is made with soybean oil as the carrier oil. Studies conclude that soy-based repellents are as effective as products made with DEET; which makes soy-based repellents more attractive for use on children.
Vinegar-based repellents are said to be effective due to the presence of sulfur; both distilled white vinegar and apple cider vinegar may be used. One reference claimed that almond oil could be used instead of vinegar due to the sulfur in almond oil. Studies have not confirmed either of these claims.
The other main ingredient in natural insect repellents is certain essential oils. Essential oils are made from plants, and are highly concentrated. They are not extracts of a particular chemical compound of the plant, but instead contain all of the plants chemical components. Nutritional science tells us that isolating chemical compounds makes them less bio-available and therefore, less effective.
Many commercial natural insect repellents just list the active ingredient of the plant or essential oil. For example, geraniol is an active ingredient extracted from geranium plants such as rose geranium and citronella.
Essential oils contain the plant’s natural defenses against microbes and insects. Since they are highly concentrated, only a few drops in a carrier oil is all that is needed for most applications. A combination of several essential oils seems to be the most effective at repelling a wide range of insects.
The most common essential oils used in insect repellents are: lemongrass, citronella, cedarwood, rosemary, peppermint, rose geranium, and lavender. Sometimes, neem oil or castor oil are also used even though they are not essential oils because they are also known to repel insects.
Since oil and water do not mix, some form of oil, called a carrier oil, is used in natural formulations to allow the essential oils to be mixed together and evenly distributed throughout the carrier oil. Shake the product before use to allow the water and oils to be dispensed together.
As with any product you are using or applying directly to skin, check for sensitivity before use. Even natural products can cause allergic reactions in some people or be irritating to sensitive skin. Also, be aware that certain essential oils are toxic to certain animals, and caution should be used when using essential oils around them. Use organic products and ingredients whenever possible.
As stated earlier, essential oils are highly concentrated, extremely potent botanical compounds that require careful use to achieve the desired results and avoid potential overdosing. For adults, the total amount of essential oils per batch created should be 3% when used on bare skin and clothing. For children over the age of 5, use a 1% solution on bare skin.
Do not use any product containing cedarwood if you are pregnant; also, do not use on children under 3 years of age. For children under the age of 5 years, hydrosols are recommended. Hydrosols provide the benefit of essential oil fragrance without the botanical active ingredients, and are therefore, safe to reapply as often as needed.
Do not use lemongrass or peppermint oil on cats, and do not use citronella oil on dogs as they have a toxic effect on them.
A Few Extra Tips
In most non-tropical places, mosquitoes are most active at dusk and throughout most of the night. Avoid being outside during that time. If you plan to be outside when mosquitoes are active, cover as much of your skin as possible and apply insect repellent to clothing. Reapply repellent every 5 hours or as necessary.
Remember to protect your face, neck and ears. Hats with protective flaps and mosquito netting are useful.
Mosquitoes are also drawn to the carbon dioxide in exhaled breath, and lactic acid that is produced by vigorous exercise so exercising outside when mosquitoes are most active will likely increase your chances of being bitten.
Moving air can help keep mosquitoes off of you. A good breeze makes it hard for mosquitoes to fly so consider adding a fan to your area outside.
To deter ticks, keep the bottom of pants legs tight around your ankles, and wear long sleeves that are snug around your wrists. Wear a hat when walking under trees. Remove clothing upon returning indoors and check for ticks that may be crawling on you or your clothes; ticks don’t usually attach right away so being proactive can prevent a tick bite.
Click this link for a great smelling recipe you can make at home to protect you and the whole family—Insect Repellent for People.
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