SUMMARY: Summer sun means exposed skin—happy news for mosquitos, their blood-sucking brethren, and other bug buddies. Under these conditions, you may be tempted to reach for that convenient bottle of insect repellent. However, after learning about the ingredients, and health impacts from these potent bug sprays, you can decide for yourself if they’re right for you and your family, or if there might be a healthier way to hide from these irritating insects.
By Rick Rydell
“I've just been bitten on the neck by a vampire... mosquito. Does that mean that when the night comes I will rise and be annoying?”
~ Vera Nazarian, Armenian-Russian American writer
If you’ve spent more than five minutes outside, it’s a sound you recognize—the irritating, buzzy whine of an unwelcome insect using your body as their personal drinking fountain. Yet mosquitos, ticks, fleas and other bugs are not only annoying, their bites can prove deadly, even if you never feel the initial clampdown.
Insects can kill through a wide variety of scary-sounding diseases, including malaria, Lyme disease, Zika, West Nile, and more. Although a tiny fraction of the global population, mosquitos alone kill approximately 725,000 humans every year, officially making the tiny menaces the deadliest animal on the planet. How surprising is that?!
Even if you relegate mosquitos as a problem mainly for developing nations, the danger of insects in general strikes closer to home. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 65 Americans die each year after encounters with hornets, wasps, and bees.
Clearly, some sort of precaution is worth considering, especially if the bite-ee cannot protect themself on their own—namely animals, babies, and children. So, as humans have been doing for millennia, “mankind” came up with solutions to ward off insects.
Ancient Egyptians crafted rudimentary bed nets and burned foul-smelling castor oil; Native Americans used plants as a topical ointment and repelling smoke-starter; long-ago Romans put vinegar on their hands and feet; even Napoleon saw fit to extract oils from chrysanthemum plants to deter lice and fleas.
Now in all honesty, do you have that chrysanthemum bloom or bottle of castor oil around when you need them? Enter modern bug spray: AKA insect repellent—a handy and easily transportable way to shield yourself from the bites of the creepy crawlers. First developed in the 1940s and 50s, bug spray has grown in scope and cultural usage over the years, with nearly 60 percent of 195 million Americans using it in 2020.
It goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway—the fact that the market is projected to grow even more, doesn’t necessarily make these bug repellents the wisest choice to apply to your skin and clothing. The questions must be asked: Are the ingredients in the sprays healthy for humans, animals, and the planet as a whole? And as a health-conscious consumer, should you instead be buzzing around for a safer alternative?
Can’t Beat the DEET
First, a primer: Insect repellent often works by hiding your “scent signature,” given that many bugs find their hosts through scent (they can also use heat, movement and sight). The four most common ingredients in modern bug sprays are either chemicals, or natural-occurring plant oils, including DEET, picaridin, IR3535, and oil of lemon eucalyptus. Chances are if you grab a container of insect spray from the pharmacy or grocery store shelf, it will have one of these four ingredients.
DEET may be the best-known commercial insect repellent. Developed by the army to protect its soldiers slogging through bug-infested jungles, DEET is shorthand for N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide. It’s a different chemical compound than DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), the infamous wildlife-destroying pesticide widely used in the United States until it was ultimately banned in 1972.
Though they sound similar—and some unfortunate souls perished in the 1980s after drinking it―DEET has not left the same destructive footprints as its predecessor.
Scientists are still debating why and how DEET works. Their best guess? Instead of making humans invisible via scent-blocking, it may block bugs’ ability to feed once they land on their hoped-for supper. Or even that mosquitos find the chemical to be culinarily abhorrent, given that they taste with their feet, so therefore they no longer wish to bite once they touch down on an unwitting human.
No matter how it works, DEET has proven effective, regularly topping the list of most effective insect repellents. And if you follow directions, you might be DEET-safe, according to Environmental Working Group (EWG):
“[I]f used as directed, DEET is considered safe by many public health organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization (AAP 2005, CDC 2013D, EPA 1998, Schutze 2013, WHO 2012). DEET is among those chemicals recommended by WHO for protection against disease-carrying mosquitoes and is the only repellent recommended by the CDC to protect against Lyme disease (CDC 2013D, WHO 2012).
In 1998 the EPA reviewed the first 40 years of public usage of DEET along with the known toxicity information and concluded that ‘“the normal use of DEET does not present a health concern to the general U.S. population.”’ The agency found ‘“no toxicologically significant effects in animal studies'' (EPA 1998).”’
Those “if used as directed” and “normal use of DEET” portions are crucial. If heaven forbid, you get DEET in your eyes, ears, nose, or throat, you run the risk of burning, redness, and irritation (hence the guidelines about not letting small children apply their own bug spray).
While that doesn’t seem so terrible, consider this: Besides the aforementioned DEET deaths via ingestion, if you use DEET in too-high concentrations (over 50%) for frequent and long periods of time—allowing the chemical to reach your nervous system—you run the risk of coma, seizures and death.
It's not too much of a stretch, then, to imagine kids and pets getting into trouble with DEET. You can mitigate their risks by keeping the repellent in secure cupboards (far-far away), not allowing children to apply it themselves. Spray it onto your hands before applying discreetly (or use alternative DEET-containing products like moistened towelettes), and bathe your child as soon as they return indoors.
DEET, although known to be smelly and greasy, can be used on babies two months and older, according to the CDC, and the AAP recommends no more than 30% of any repellent used for children be composed of DEET.
You can check the label to find the concentration of DEET in a product; that indicates how long the product will work. For instance, 10% DEET provides protection against biting bugs such as mosquitoes and ticks for approximately two hours, with 30% DEET protecting for about five.
The main DEET alternatives are picaridin, IR3535, and oil of lemon eucalyptus. Picaridin is a Bayer product of the 1980s, while IR3535 came a decade earlier via Merck.
From what scientists can tell, picaridin seems to be as effective as DEET. One plus: It isn’t as smelly, greasy, or damaging to watches or glasses, as DEET often can be (its chemical composition damages glass). One scientist gave the edge to picaridin on both efficacy and ease. IR3535 is also less pungent than DEET, but it does not appear to work as well against mosquitoes and ticks.
Of the classics, that leaves you with oil of lemon eucalyptus, a much more natural-sounding alternative. Classified as an essential oil—a field largely unregistered with and not studied by the EPA for effectiveness or safety (is there perhaps less financial incentive?)—oil of lemon eucalyptus is the only oil the EPA has taken a deeper look at and approved for use as insect repellent. Several brands use it as their main ingredient, including Coleman Botanicals, Citrapel, Fite Bite, and Repel Essential.
Due to limited research, health agencies recommend against using the oil on toddlers and babies ages two and under. It is also limited in effectiveness against mosquitos with West Nile, and against sand flies and no-see-ums.
“We conclude that Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus has disadvantages and is not appropriate for all situations but is a good choice for people who want a botanically-based bug repellent,” say researchers from the Environmental Working Group.”
What about Mother Earth? What does she have to say about these bottles of liquid bug killers?
Bug sprays are technically pesticides (defined as substances used to deter or kill any pests). It doesn’t take more than a 10-second online search to find horror stories about what pesticides can do to lands, bodies of water, and vulnerable creatures. So even though they are used in smaller initial amounts, the accumulation of modern bug sprays can hurt the environment.
On one hand, you have all the alphabet agencies claiming that bug sprays are completely safe to use on most everyone, and that it probably won’t hurt anything, either. Even the state health department of Minnesota assured its citizens that DEET being found in their drinking water posed no threat to people nor creatures.
But on the other hand, there are several studies showing it’s not that simple.
Scientists have found PFAS—the never-breaks-down “forever chemicals” linked to liver, kidney and reproductive problems, alongside high cholesterol levels and tumor growth—in pesticides sprayed around Maryland, for example. The California-based Pesticide Action Network (PAN), meanwhile, cites studies showing that pesticides (which can include “the big 4”) are negatively impacting honeybee, bat, and frog populations. The resulting toxicity problem matters so much to the Golden State, that it has created a plan to quit using high-risk pesticides by 2050.
And all this pesticide usage may be for naught, as CDC researchers found that using pesticides on a larger scale to kill ticks doesn’t even result in fewer tick-borne illnesses in humans. Talk about a letdown! From “The insect repellents: A silent environmental chemical toxicant to the health”:
“An increasing number of evidence suggests that insect repellents may trigger undesirable hazardous interactions with biological systems with a potential to generate harmful effects including intermediate metabolites,” wrote researchers in Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology. “Biotransformation followed by bioaccumulation (vice e versa) may be an important phenomenon for toxic response of this chemicals.”
Therefore, the sensible bet is to support future studies on the safety and efficacy of insect repellent for humankind and the environment, as well as the creation or discovery of new, safer bug sprays. In the meantime, if you reach for a bottle, use as little repellent as possible—only as much as you need and no more—for everyone involved, including the earth.
It’s probably not the best idea to ignore bugs entirely, if only for the fact that one or more bug bites can drive you nuts—including children and pets who may scratch and even cut at the bites to find relief. Consider these tips for outdoor time this summer to avoid diseases and irritation:
- Know what types of bugs are prevalent in the area you live, including what they look like, and the best times to avoid them
- Wear breathable long-sleeve shirts, pants, and neck-covering sun hats while in high-insect population areas
- Use bed nets when camping, and fans as much as possible during outdoor time
- Destroy bug breeding grounds near your home, including standing pools of water and tall grass
- If bug spray is absolutely necessary, read the list of ingredients to know exactly what is going on (and in) your body. Choose the one that best fits your needs
- Know the signs of poisoning and overexposure, and keep a vigilant watch for symptoms, including shortness of breath, confusion, and dizziness, etc.
- Use bug spray (including natural and DIY versions) only according to the instructions. If making your own, watch the amount, as ultra-high concentrations of essential oils can also pose risks
Consider essential oils that are marketed as anti-bug, such as lavender. These oils can be used on pets as well; just make sure they’re diluted first, and that you are fully knowledgeable on their suggested usage.
Besides sprays to combat mosquitoes, widen your horizons to products such as citronella candles and sticks, or diatomaceous earth in a huge variety of products to fight all kinds of bugs.
At the end of the day, consider using natural medicine, the way nature intended. If you think chemicals “work better,” or are “more effective,” it may be a matter of a long-held mindset, cultivated from decades of Big Chem indoctrination. Stay open; follow your intuition, and experiment with simple organic ingredients to make natural bug repellents, such as cloves, beeswax, peppermint, lemon juice, and beloved garlic.
Published on July 27, 2023.
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