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DEET-Free Mosquito Repellents That Work

Posted Jul 15 2010 11:30am

Summer's not the only thing in full swing right now. If you live anywhere except a desert, you're likely to be plagued by mosquitoes.

Mosquito 2 Most conventional mosquito repellents contain DEET, a chemical that is toxic to a variety of flying and biting insects and has raised questions about its safety for people. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) analysed human health consequences from DEET exposure and found that the most problems occurred when DEET was applied in high concentrations and left on the skin rather than washed off.   

However, the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia recommends consumers choose botanically-based repellents rather than DEET unless they face serious health threats from something like West Nile Virus . Reports the agency, DEET is "a member of the toluene chemical family. Toluene is an organic solvent used in rubber and plastic cements and paint removers. DEET is absorbed through the skin and passes into the blood. The Medical Sciences Bulletin, published by Pharmaceutical Information Associates Ltd. reports, "Up to 56% of DEET applied topically penetrates intact human skin and 17% is absorbed into the bloodstream." Blood concentrations of about 3 mg per litre have been reported several hours after DEET repellent was applied to skin in the prescribed fashion. DEET is also absorbed by the gut." 

DEET may also negatively impact the central nervous system and cause serious skin rashes, says the association. For all of these reasons, Health Canada has banned products containing a 30% or higher concentration of DEET. Also banned are 2-in-1 products, like sunscreen that includes DEET.

DEET-Free Alternatives

The safer alternatives contain some combination of essential oils and another liquid, like rubbing alcohol, to make it easy to spread or spray on. The most common essential oils used in repellents seem to be citronella, lavender, geraniol (a derivative of the geranium plant), eucalyptus, lemongrass, mint, rosemary and thyme. There are many prepared options available in stores and online. Or you can make your own.

I decided to try  Burt's Bees , essential lavender oil , vanilla extract out of my pantry, and DEET-based Cutter. I've used Buzz Away in the past, and found that it worked for about a half an hour at a time, so didn't re-test it this time around.

I sprayed one leg with Burt's Bees and the other leg with Cutter , which contains 21.85% DEET. I rubbed about a half-teaspoon of vanilla extract on my left arm, and dotted my right arm with the lavender essential oil. Then I went down to my garden to test the effectiveness of each of these four repellents.

Mosquito biting leg Amazingly, the mosquitoes swarmed to the leg that was sprayed with Burt's Bees (see left - somewhat blurry picture of mosquito biting my leg).  Nothing at all alit anywhere else (see protected arm, right) Mosquito free arm . So, on the herbal side, at least for me, vanilla extract and essential oil of lavender worked as well at keeping biting bugs at bay as did the Cutter, and far better than Burt's Bees.

To get more recommendations, I polled members of the Green Moms Carnival .

Jenn of The Green Parent said, "I use California Baby Citronella Summer Lotion.  My youngest gets really bad bug bites but just a little dab of this lotion and she remains bite-free all nite."

Lisa of Condo Blues said "I use EcoSmart insect repellent and it works great! During our family reunion, one family used Off and obviously mine used EcoSmart. The active ingredients are wintergreen oil and rosemary oil. It kept the bugs away and everyone who used my insect repellent liked it better because it smells better than Off." Lisa also recommends Happy Critters Farm Natural Bug Spray if you don't mind the smell of citronella.

The last time Beth of Fake Plastic Fish went camping, she used All Terrain Herbal Armor , another DEET-free solution consisting of various essential oils like citronella, geranium and lemongrass. (NOTE: This solution did not spray out of the several bottles I tried in the store. If you don't mind spreading it on rather than spraying it, it could work for you.)

Anna of Green Talk  uses Shoo Fly  by Bioganic.

Karen of Best of Mother Earth is also trying out vanilla extract.

Thistle Farms is another company selling an herbal-based insect repellent. Added bonus: the farm is being managed by women who have survived drug use and prostitution and are making a new life for themselves working to develop and market natural products.

My recommendations?

1) First, cover up. The less skin you expose, the less likely you are to get bitten. If you're working in your garden or hiking in the woods, wear shoes, socks, lightweight pants, a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt with a collar, and a hat. If you're sitting on the porch or at an outdoor event and don't want to wear long pants or long sleeves, drape a light-weight shawl or scarf over your legs or arms. If the bugs are really vicious, spray your clothes, not your skin (and launder when you get in the house). Another advantage of protecting your skin? You won't need to apply sun screen.

2) Light citronella candles when you're sitting outside. You may still need to squirt bug spray on your ankles and legs, but the candles will emit an aroma that helps keep mosquitoes away from your arms and face. The more candles, the better.

 3) If you're the do-it-yourself type, pick up a bottle of an essential oil like eucalyptus, lavender, citronella, or geraniol, or try some combination. Get a 4- or 6-ounce pump bottle; add somewhere between 10 and 20 drops of each oil to a couple of ounces of water or rubbing alcohol and shake well. Spray on exposed skin, always avoiding your face. (Pay attention: some herbal oils may irritate the skin. Find one that works for you.)

4) Try one of the herbal repellents available in most grocery, hardware, and gardening stores, or order online. They generally cost about the same as conventional, pesticide-based sprays. If you don't see a botanically-based option, ask for one.

5) If you feel you must use something stronger than essential oils, choose a product containing Picaridin , which does not seem to irritate the skin the same way DEET does. Always use the lowest concentration that will work for you. Never use DEET or other pesticides on infants or children; especially avoid sunscreens that also contain insect repellents. Wash your hands immediately after applying.

For more suggestions on how to protect babies and kids from bugs, see this issue of Consumer Reports .



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