Natural Bug Repellent

By Christopher Crown

February 14, 2020 5 min read


Keeping bugs away while avoiding harsh chemicals.

Chrisopher Crown

Colloquially called "bug juice" when it was employed in Vietnam to protect soldiers from swarms of toxic mosquitos, the chemical DEET has been ruling the world of insect repellent since 1946. However, as consumers begin to turn away from synthetic chemicals and search for more natural remedies, the warm welcome DEET enjoyed for several decades is quickly wearing out. So what's the true story on DEET, and what other nonchemical options are out there?

There are dozens of obscure home remedies to avoid mosquito bites: you have to eat this; you have to wear that; citronella is the key; mosquitos don't like this; etc. But what actually attracts mosquitoes to humans? A study conducted by the University of California discovered that mosquitoes have a dual-action method for detecting humans. A special receptor allows them to not only hone in on skin odor, but also on the plumes of carbon dioxide we exhale. This is why it feels like mosquitoes are always buzzing around your face; they are! It's one of their primary attractants. The researchers did not find effective ways to block the CO2 receptors, so the only hope is to mask skin odor.

Enter: DEET. As a chemical, DEET is designed to limit the olfactory chemical properties of the compounds it's mixed with. By reducing the volatility of these chemicals (aka, sweat, skin oil, hair, dead skin) DEET masks the attractiveness of these smells to mosquitoes. And it's a good thing we developed DEET, as it has served in numerous wars and helps protect millions from the threat of malaria and dengue fever, according to a 2015 public safety announcement from the CDC. However, although the CDC has released information claiming that DEET is a safe and effective treatment, many consumers worry about it's potential relation to several health issues. The CDC acknowledges that DEET should not be used directly on sensitive skin (as it can act as an irritant) but the U.S. National Library of Medicine, on their database, elaborates on some of the more serious side effects. If accidentally inhaled or ingested, DEET can cause disorientation, seizures, difficulty breathing and swallowing and severe skin rashes in susceptible populations or consumers who use DEET frequently. Whether you're worried about these side effects or are just looking to go a more natural route, there are other options.

Over the last several years, more scientific research has been devoted to studying alternative insect repellents. Susan Brink, a contributor to NPR online, cites a study released in the 2015 Journal of Insect Science that reviewed the masking ability of several alternative insect repellents. While citronella and vitamin B1 (both lauded compounds found in almost all-natural repellents) came up dismally short in controlled trials, the oil of lemon eucalyptus emerged as the top performer, rivaling DEET in lab experiments. Further research on OLE has prompted the CDC to start recommending the natural oil, while simultaneously cautioning against its use on anyone 3 years old or younger. At the end of the day, all of these products are pesticides, compounds specifically selected to deter biological life. Although natural remedies produce fewer side effects, consumers should be wary of overapplication and will find even higher success when wearing proper clothing.

In Brink's NPR article, she interviews field researcher Dr. Jorge Rey of the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory. Entrenched in areas of high mosquito density, Rey recommends long sleeves and baggy pants. Mosquitoes can bite right through tight clothing, and by wearing layers, you can apply repellent directly on clothing instead of bare skin. So consider taking a break from the potential neurotoxin DEET and give lemon eucalyptus oil a try the next time you find yourself swatting bugs at a spring barbeque.

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