June 24, 2015

The deadliest insect on Earth, a mosquito is a formidable opponent that’s had 200 million years to perfect its game. Here’s how to win with natural and non-toxic approaches to bug repellents.

Hiking and enjoying the outdoors should not be a bloodletting affair. Getting a serious blood-borne disease is even worse. Along with sunscreen and poison ivy barrier lotions, mosquito repellents are essential. (We’ll get to chigger repellents another time.)   

The female mosquito needs blood to grow her egg brood and is determined to get it. She sucks blood from birds, mice, squirrels, deer and more, in the process spreading diseases. Malaria, encephalitis, dengue and yellow fevers in the tropics, while in Texas it’s the West Nile virus from bird to human. Meanwhile, the male is like a butterfly, drifting about sipping flower nectar and sweet tree saps, waiting for eggs to fertilize.

Mosquitoes lack a sense of smell. Strong aromas do not deter them. They locate potential victims through the carbon dioxide of their exhale. So what a mosquito finds repellent is highly specific, hence strange chemicals like DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide), which can cause neurological damage in high doses. Your skin must become so unappetizing they won’t bite there. That means a thorough application is important. Aroma won’t cut it. It must be a physical barrier. 

Right, courtesy of InsaneScouter.org. 

Lucky for us, there are options. Those based on plant oils and essential oils continue to improve. New on the scene are non-toxic synthetic repellents, some of them plant-derived, that are non-toxic and do not damage fabrics, plastics or other materials like DEET does. 

ESSENTIAL OILS 

Botanical repellents work fine for most backyards and light nature excursions. 

To make your own natural repellent, dilute essential oils into a base before applying. Soybean oil and castor oil sticks to your skin a long time, resists sweat and is unpleasant to bugs. But other plant, nut and seed oils or vegetable glycerin will do. Thin these with witch hazel, isopropyl alcohol or cetyl (drinking) alcohol, or a combination, to create a spray that must be shaken very well before using. 

Mountain Rose Herbs has a great do-it-yourself approach for a sprayable light repellent based on a catnip hydrosol or alcohol tincture. While they swear by catnip for repelling mosquitos, this is a problem in my household. To moderate the cat-attracting qualities and increase the bug-fighting oomph, Mountain Rose recommends adding some of these essential oils: cedarwood, citronella, eucalyptus, lavender, lemongrass and rosemary. Include some witch hazel extract to make your skin happy. If the catnip proves irresistible to your felines, use witch hazel astringent as a base. Directions are at their blog. 

Above, catnip essential oil from Mountain Rose Herbs.

The biggest problem with botanicals is that they evaporate quickly, from 30 minutes if you’re sweating in the sunlight to two hours if you’re cool, shady and non-sweaty. Apply thoroughly and thickly. Commercially made potions contain natural fixatives that help them last longer.  

Here are some essential oil-based products: 

• Bug-Bouncer by Bug-Bouncer 

Locally made, highly concentrated, essential oil blends in a witch hazel base. Available in lavender and geranium scented Park and citronella Garden in a 33 percent concentration, plus extra-strength Forest with 50 percent. Portable ½-oz size. Company donates $1 per bottle to nature and eco causes. 
 

 

Anti Bug Shake & Spray by Badger

A base of 23 percent soybean oil and 10 percent castor oil, with 0.5 percent wintergreen for a nice smell. Shake well before using. Super oily, hassle to use, not very effective. Available in pump spray. 

 

Herbal Armor Natural Insect Repellent by All Terrain

A base of 11.5 percent soybean oil, with beeswax and vegetable glycerin. A hefty 10 percent of citronella, plus smaller amounts of cedar, geranium, lemongrass and peppermint essential oils. Effective and sticks to you. Available in pump spray, aerosol-like Eco-Spray. 

 

Bite Blocker Extreme

A base of soybean oil, 10 percent castor oil and vitamin E, plus 6 percent geranium essential oil. Available in pump spray. 

 

Buzz Away Extreme by Quantum

A base of beeswax, coconut oil, vegetable glycerin, 8 percent castor oil, and 3 percent soybean oil, with alkalizing baking soda. Essential oils include citronella, cedarwood, geranium, lemongrass and peppermint. Effective and sticks to you, but only the Extreme version. Available in pump spray, wipes. 

 

Herbal Insect Repellent by Burt's Bees

Base of soybean oil, 10 percent castor oil and vitamin E, with small amounts of cedar, citronella, clove, geranium, lemongrass and peppermint essential oils. Wimpy. Available in pump spray.

 

Natural Mosquito Repellent by Repel & • Natural Insect Repellent by Cutter

Based on geraniol, which is extracted from geranium and other plants. Small drawback: geraniol attracts bees. Otherwise not very natural, loaded with sodium laurel sulphate and other chemmies, with only a smidge of soybean oil. Both get very mixed reviews. 

 

 

 

PLANT-DERIVED REPELLENTS

The current rock star among plant-derived repellents is oil of lemon eucalyptus (Corymbia citriodora) that is refined to create p-menthane-3,8-diol (PMD). This is similar to how orange oil is refined to create the natural orange-oil herbicide. When studies refer to the bug-fighting ability of oil of lemon eucalyptus, it is this refined version, NOT the essential oil version. 

Right, lemon eucalyptus tree, courtesy of Wikipedia.

According to the Center for Disease Control, a 10 percent concentration of PMD is good for short excursions; 30 percent is effective up to 6 hours. Concentrations of 20 to 25 percent are equal to 15 to 20 percent DEET. Not as effective on sand gnats, biting midges and other 'no-see-ums.' 

The Center for Disease Control advises against using lemon eucalyptus oil on children under three years of age.

May cause a reaction on sensitive skin at any age.

Here are some PMD-based products:   

Botanical Lotion Insect Repellent by Off!: 10 percent PMD. Available in lotion, wipes.

Lemon Eucalyptus Natural Insect Repellent by Repel: 30 percent PMD. Available in pump spray.

Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent by Cutter: 30 percent PMD. Available in pump spray

Mosquito Coast Insect Repellent by Bull Frog: 20 percent PMD.  Synthetic base with aloe vera. Available in aerosol-like Eco-Spray, wipes, and with sunscreen.

SYNTHETIC REPELLENTS

Picaridin

Picaridin (pih-CARE-a-den), more accurately icaridin, is known to cosmetic chemists as 2 hydroxyethyl isobutyl piperidine carboxylate. Also termed KBR3023, Bayrepel or Saltidin, it has been Europe’s DEET-replacement for many years. It is almost free of color and odor and has low oral, dermal and inhalation toxicity. 

The longest-lasting repellent, according to the Center for Disease Control, a 20 percent picaridin concentration protects for up to 8 hours, outlasting DEET. A 5 to 10 percent concentration is good for short-term protection. Also works well on sand gnats, biting midges, and other 'no-see-ums.'  

Here are some picaridin-based products: 

Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard by Avon: 20 percent picaridin. With aloe and vitamin E. Available in pump spray and with sunscreen.

Tick Defense by Repel: 20 percent picaridin. Available in aerosol spray. 

Natrapel 8-Hour Insect Repellent by Adventure Medical Kits: 20 percent picaridin. Available in aerosol-like Eco-Spray, wipes. 

Permethrin 

Permethrin is applied only to clothing and gear. It can even kill ticks, another disease carrier. The neurotoxin acts like natural pyrethrum extract from chrysanthemums. Except for one big drawback: cats that inhale permethrin fumes may undergo hyperexcitability, tremors, seizures, or even death, though it’s said to be safe once dried. Like pyrethrum, it is also dangerously toxic to fish. Not effective when applied to the skin.

Caution: Permethrin can be toxic cats and fish.

Fabric sprayed with permethrin can be washed a half-dozen times before becoming ineffective. Commercially treated clothing can go through ten times as many washes and the permethrin is sealed into the fabric for cat safety. REI, Cabela’s and other outdoor sports stores carry permethrin clothing, including hats and neck and ankle gators. A treated long-sleeved shirt, even just worn open as an over-shirt, is essential in high infestations. 

Here is a permethrin-based product:

Clothing & Gear Insect Repellent by Repel 


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Comments (5)

  • anon
    Anonymous (not verified)

    Amy,
    Have you tried Bug Bouncer?

    Various blends and sents of plant based good smelling to humans, product.
    http://www.bug-bouncer.com/

    They have it available at a lot of area organic shops and feed markets, including tourist attractions like Arboretum.
    Thanks for your research and writing.
    Paul

    Jun 23, 2015
  • anon
    jthibodeaux (not verified)

    This article focuses on sprays, but my experience with natural insect repellents is that lotions or balms are far more effective. You described the Badger spray as a hassle to use, oily and not very effective. That may be true, but it does a disservice to Badger to not mention that they also offer an anti-bug balm containing most of the essential oils mentioned for making your own, blended into a base of olive oil, beeswax and castor oil. For me, this balm works very well, is not oily, and has a scent that I like. It comes in a lightweight tin that is easy to carry and won't leak or clog like a spray bottle.

    -Linda Cooke via Facebook

    Jun 24, 2015
  • anon
    Anonymous (not verified)

    A correction/typo: In the 'Essential Oils" paragraph, "cetyl" alcohol is not drinking alcohol...that's ethyl alcohol, aka ethanol.

    Thanks for the great article & alternatives to DEET...& mosquitos, ticks, etc.

    Jun 24, 2015
  • anon
    Anonymous (not verified)

    I just want to say thanks for this. I had been avoiding going outside-period-because my reaction to insect bites is even worse than using a spray with Deet. I will give Buzz Away Extreme or Herbal Armor a try. My skin is very sensitive, even to so-called natural ingrediants, so I have to be particular.

    Jun 24, 2015
  • anon
    Anonymous (not verified)

    M2M2-Maggie's Mountain Magic Mist is an essential oil blend of 9 different organic essential oils in a Grapeseed Oil base. Suspended with Witch Hazel, this hi-powered blend has been 100% effective for myself, my husband and my M2M2 fan base (70+ and counting). Easy to use, smells lovely (Citronella gives me an instant headache & nausea), does not stain clothing (I spray my socks, since those momma mossies are vicious & relentless. lol lol), doesn't burn when one sweats, and is both non-sticky & non greasy. After about 5 minutes-ish, you won't even know you have it on. It's a win/win all around!
    It has an effective span of anywhere between 90 minutes to 3+ hours. I have used it on two different camping trips with complete success. Friends, family & others report effective use while gardening, dog park-ing, attending concerts in the park, Boy Scout events. Even my mechanic husband applies it before heading out to work.
    Please feel free to contact me for more info. I would love for you to try it!
    Thank you!
    ~maggie

    Jun 25, 2015