Summer bugs got you down? Check out these eco-friendly repellant options from NOW Magazine’s reigning queen eco-bee, Adria Vasil.
Going into deep woods or dewy tropics and worried about being eaten alive? Just invite me along! I’m hands-down the single biggest bug magnet in town, so you should be safe standing next to me. After spending a week on one infested beach, I counted over 150 sandfly bites from my neck to my toes, while my man had, oh, four.
Now, people will share a million and one dietary tips for repelling mosquitoes naturally, from slimming down (thinner people purportedly emit less bug-attracting carbon dioxide) and eating less meat, dairy and sugar to eating more onions and garlic.
Well, I’m a thin, garlic-loving half-Greek and long-term lactose-intolerant vegetarian who gave up sugar a decade ago, and I don’t buy it. I take B vitamins, too (B1 is recommended as another strategy), and I can’t say that’s helped. A good dozen studies have concluded with the same poor showing for B1, but you know what? If you want to try all the above to repel the little buggers, you’ll be a healthier person for it, so please, do your own trials and prove me wrong. Personally, I’ve just accepted that I’m biochemically irresistible and had better load up on the right repellent.
DEET: What I can tell you conclusively is that while DEET works harder and longer than any other repellent available, it’s most definitely a proven neurotoxin, meaning it’s toxic to the central nervous system.
A 2009 study published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine found a link between DEET use in the first three months of pregnancy and an 81% increase in hypospadias (where the penis opening is in the wrong place). More research is needed to confirm the findings, but the U.S. Agency of Toxic Substances does confirm that between 1961 and 2002 there were two adult and three child fatalities from DEET applications to the skin and 17 cases of “significant toxicity,” mostly in kids. Symptoms included lethargy, headaches, tremors, seizures and convulsions with dermal applications of sprays containing as little as 15% DEET. No wonder Health Canada says “Prolonged use should be avoided in children under the age of 12.”
Ultimately, you’ve got to weigh the risks in your specific geographic location. In your backyard, DEET should be a serious no-no, but if you’re trekking through a malaria- or dengue fever–plagued jungle, you might consider an exception for short-term use. What are your DEET-free options?
Citronella: Bad news. Looks like Health Canada is pulling all citronella products off the market by 2013/2014. Shocker, I know. It’s true that studies never found it to work all that well (a New England Journal of Medicine study I cited in the first Ecoholic book found citronella had to be reapplied after as little as 10 to 30 minutes) but still, it was our choice to use it. Why is it being pulled? Health Canada says: “While no immediate health risks were identified with the use of citronella-based personal insect repellents, these products will be phased out unless requested scientific data are supplied.” One natural bug spray company I asked about this said they just didn’t have the funds to finance a lot of expensive research on the ingredient.
Soybean Oil: Health Canada says a 2% soy oil repellent protects against mozzies for 3.5 hours and against blackflies for 8 hours. And you can use it as often as you like on everyone in the family! For top natural protection, track down something that’s soybean oil based like Green Beaver’s Outdoor Lotion. Or next time you’re in the United States, get Buzz Away Extreme or Bite Blocker. Both have done very well in clinical trials.
Neem/catnip oil: Neem oil is a traditional Indian bug repellent and has performed well in trials done by the Malaria Research Centre in Dehli, India. A 2006 study published by the American Chemical Society concluded catnip oil is a “potent mosquito repellent” though not as long lasting as DEET. Alypsis Neem & Catnip Outdoor Body Spray is a good pick, though greasy.
Other Bug-repelling Options:
• Eucalyptus oil–based products have shown some promise.
• Wear long, light-coloured clothing at dusk, tuck in pants to avoid ticks, and bring a bug burka on camping trips. The Original Bug Shirt Company has all sorts of clothing to keep you sting free. Stay away from bug clothes dipped in bug-repelling chems like permethrins; they’re not permitted in Canada anyway.
• Save your money and skip useless ultrasonic and electronic devices. Bug zappers are also a waste (zappers may catch thousands of bugs per day, but only 6.4% are mosquitoes and of those, only half are the biting females). Citronella candles help only if you’re sitting right next to them and the wind is blowing your way.
Itch Relief: If the bugs still get you, try a dab of tea tree oil on bites to stop the sting without the ammonia in mainstream itch stoppers. Rubbing in some itch-busting Aroma Crystal Gardener’s Dream Cream should calm things down in no time, too.
DIY Bug Spray
Mix up 1/4 cup (125 mL) of soybean oil (if you can find it, get the organic kind from the health store—Spectrum makes some), 1/4 cup of water, 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of coconut oil, 45+ drops of essential geranium oil, 1 teaspoon of neem oil. Put in a spray bottle, shake well, spritz and rub into your skin.