If you’re noticing that you are slapping mosquitos off your skin, then it’s time for the bug spray. And why not? These little critters can carry diseases such as West Nile virus, malaria, dengue fever, Lyme disease (deer tick) and several forms of encephalitis. Insect bites can also cause allergic reactions.
What attracts these nasty bugs to us?
Biting insects follow the scent of carbon dioxide gas. Skin and our breath naturally give off carbon dioxide. It is also attracted to body heat, chemicals in sweat and the odor of soaps and lotions. DEET and other insect repellents do not kill insects, but rather prevents these biting bugs from zeroing in on our skin.
Which kind of bug repellent do you use?
There has recently been alot of debate on whether DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) is safe to use on human skin, especially on children. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registered DEET to public use in 1957. It was re-assessed in 1998 to make sure it met current safety standards. DEET works well on mosquitos, biting flies, gnats, chiggers, ticks, fleas and other biting insects. The EPA concluded that DEET is safe when used as directed. So that means don’t spray it in your eyes, up your nose or swallow it. The most common complaints has been eye and skin irritation, but there have been some incidences of seizures, muscle spasms, and even death. And yes, the EPA concluded that DEET can be used on children but I recommend covering your children up during high risk hours of dusk and dawn instead of spraying your kids since children tend to be more sensitive and skin absorption is more rapid.
Some people dislike the smell and oily feel of DEET. It can also damage plastics, paints and clothing.
Another alternative that is as effective as a low strength DEET is picaridin. This product has been widely used in Europe and Australia. Reviewers say that a 7% picaridin will protect against ticks and mosquitos for up to 2.5 hours. Whereas, a DEET concentrtion of 23.8% can repel mosquitos for up to 5 hours. Higher concentrations will extend your coverage time. There is also an extended release DEET. I like picaridin because it doesn’t damage plastics, isn’t sticky on the skin and is odorless. It has also been recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the best protection against malaria.
There are many “natural” plant based insect repellents to choose from. They use essential oils from a variety of plants such as citronella, cedar, eucalyptus, peppermint, lemongrass, geranium, and soybean.
Studies have shown that a soybean oil-based repellent gives protection from mosquito bites for about 1.5 hours, which is similar to a product with a low concentration of DEET (4.75%). It is effective against black flies as well as mosquitoes and ticks. It’s good to use a soybean oil-based product if you had an allergic reaction to DEET, have irritated or broken skin, or any skin condition such as skin cancer, dermatitis, acne, eczema, or psoriasis. Reapply frequently, at least every 90 minutes or when you feel like mosquitos are biting. Soybean oil-based repellent is safe on children and pregnant women.
Some research has been done on products NOT used on the skin. Swallowing garlic or thiamine (vitamin B1) is not as effective as an insect repellent, but you may want to take these in addition to a non-DEET product.
So what product is best for you?
It depends on how long you need protection. For a 1 or 2 hour hike, a 15% picaridin or a “natural” bug repellent would be fine. If I needed longer coverage and was exploring in a jungle at high risk for malaria, I would probably use a 34% concentration of DEET. Take a shower or wash off insect repellent at the end of the day. Ask your practitioner what might be best for you and have a great summer!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Lyme Disease Information
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: West Nile Virus Fact Sheet
Environmental Protection Agency Insect Repellent Information
National Pesticide Information Center