Bug Off: What You Need To Know About Insect Repellents

by Jenny Robinson

With the warmer summer weather comes a barrage of bugs. Mosquitoes, flies and even ticks can turn an outdoor adventure into an itchy and bothersome nightmare. Traveling with insect repellent, these days, has become a necessity. But how do you know which is best, and for what? 

Broadly, there are three major types of bug repellent: natural repellents, DEET and Pyrethrin. Most common in big-name bug sprays, DEET, or diethyltoluamide, is one of the most effective synthetic chemical repellents approved by the FDA to target mosquitoes, flies and ticks. While it has been tested and found safe in small concentrations, DEET repellents are not recommended in large amounts or for extended periods of time. DEET can be a skin irritant, especially to those with more sensitive skin, and can harm the lungs or eyes if used incorrectly. 

Pyrethrin is mostly used as an insecticide, so it is best used in gardens and on other plants rather than on human skin. It is made from chrysanthemum extracts that are naturally toxic to many bugs, including ticks. However, it can not only irritate the skin, it is not advised for those with allergies. Some people may be sensitive to pyrethrins (and pyrethroids) and experience an anaphylactic reaction resulting in skin or respiratory disorders. According to webmd.com, “While pyrethrum has limited toxicity at low doses, it can cause some side effects such as headache, ringing of the ears, nausea, tingling of fingers and toes, breathing problems, and other nervous system problems.”

Both are considered effective tick repellents. But if you do use DEET or Pyrethrin, make sure and shower it off as soon as possible. 

The broadest category of repellents is natural repellents. Some have been used for centuries, and these herbs and botanical oils can be just as effective as DEET in most instances, though they cannot be counted on to be effective against lyme ticks.

Lemon eucalyptus oil
Lemon eucalyptus oil has been approved by the CDC as an effective mosquito repellent. One study found that a lemon eucalyptus oil solution was 95 percent effective for three hours against mosquitoes.

Lavender
Both effective and aromatic, crushed lavender flowers or oil can be effective at repelling mosquitoes. This is a good alternative for those with sensitive skin since lavender is naturally soothing and gentle. If planted in a garden or potted on the porch, it works to keep the mosquitoes at bay and provides easy access when you need extra skin protection.

Thyme
Either the oil or the leaves themselves can be used to keep the bugs away. By applying thyme oil to the skin or by burning thyme in a bonfire, the herbaceous scent is at least 85 percent effective against mosquitoes and gnats.

Tea Tree oil
This antibacterial oil is effective against mosquitoes, bush flies and biting midges. Tea tree oil is another good option for those with sensitive skin, because it calms irritation and prevents infection as well.

Rosemary
The lore about keeping rosemary at your gate isn’t just to ward off bad energy, it also wards off pesky flies, mosquitoes or moths. The plant itself can be placed around the perimeter of a space to limit the amount of bugs, or the leaves can be burned for a similar effect as with thyme. If the leaves are boiled in water for 30 minutes or more, the water can also be sprayed on the skin to keep the bugs away.

Citronella
Commonly found in candles, citronella is actually a combination of several different varieties of lemongrass oils. It’s safe in candles as well as in oil form.

While most repellents target mosquitoes and flies, ticks are also a big problem. DEET has been found to be most effective against ticks, but overuse is advised against. Cedar oil, eucalyptus oil, neem oil, apple cider vinegar and garlic all may be effective at keeping ticks away, and some are even toxic to them. 

Other precautions such as wearing clothing that covers more skin, taking a hot shower after any outdoor excursions or having someone else check you can keep you tick- and lyme-disease free.

All that said, it is best to use multiple repellents. When using essential oils, remember to dilute them in a carrier oil before use to prevent skin irritation. Similarly, before spraying or rubbing anything all over your body, make sure you test a small patch of skin to ensure you won’t have any reaction to the ingredients. Keeping all those things in mind, your summer outings are sure to be bug-free and fun.

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