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Bug Off: DEET vs. Alternatives
Mosquito season begins in late spring and lasts well into the humid late-summer months in many parts of the United States. And with concerns about West Nile Virus, mosquito bites are more than just an itchy irritation.
But the warning labels on over-the-counter bug repellents containing DEET tend read like a toxicology report — not exactly inspiration for a carefree outing. Plus, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a small amount of DEET can be absorbed through the skin. Which sort of leaves you hanging, wondering what that could mean over multitudinous summers of coating a large percentage of your skin with the stuff.
Yet the EPA and CDC both recommend using DEET and rank it as the most effective insect repellent that is also widely available.
So can you keep bugs at bay without dousing your family in DEET?
One option is to use a product that contains natural botanical ingredients that have natural insect-repelling qualities.
The CDC recommends products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus (a.k.a. p-menthane 3,8-diol, or PMD) as a natural ingredient that’s as effective as repellents containing low concentrations of DEET. Importantly, they point out that the lower the concentration of DEET, the less time the repellent remains effective on your skin after you apply it. Low concentrations (around 4 to 5 percent) may last for up to 90 minutes, while a formula containing around 25 percent DEET should keep the bugs off you for more like 5 hours.
Other essential oils that can deter bugs include catnip, cedar, basil, eucalyptus, citronella, lemongrass and possibly geranium, says Debra Lynn Dadd, an environmental consumer advocate and author of several related books, including “Home Safe Home: Creating a Healthy Home Environment by Reducing Exposure to Toxic Household Products.” Dilute them first, she advises, with some plain cooking oil before applying them to your skin.
But don't leave home without that aromatic bottle of herbal bug juice. Many essential oil products don’t last as long as products containing DEET, so you’ll need to reapply them more frequently. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine compared insect repellents containing citronella, cedar, peppermint, lemongrass, geranium and soybean oil to those containing DEET — and found that most of the natural insect repellents were effective for less than 20 minutes, and some for less than 10 minutes. The product containing soybean oil protected against bites for about as long as products containing low concentrations of DEET, keeping mosquitoes more than arm's length away for about 90 minutes.
A natural product’s shorter lasting power shouldn’t keep you from trying it, though, says Dadd. “Most people don’t think the way nature thinks,” she explains. “In nature, most things are biodegradable. They’re transient. You don’t want something that’s going to stay on your skin for a very long time.” The upshot: Take the bottle with you so you can reapply several times an hour.
Dadd also suggests plain apple cider vinegar as an inexpensive and very safe way of keeping mosquitoes away. “It doesn’t hurt your skin at all, and you’ll only smell like a pickle for a few minutes,” she laughs.
Thankfully there are other ways to make yourself and your family less appetizing to mosquitoes and other biting bugs. Here are a few tips the big guns on deterring biting bugs seem to agree on:
- To use any product (natural or chemical) safely, follow the instructions on the package.
- Avoid getting the product into your eyes, mouth, nose or any open cuts.
- Think twice before using products that combine sunscreen and a DEET-based insect repellent; the CDC notes that since you’ll need to reapply sunscreen more often than a DEET-based repellant, you may risk over-applying repellent, which could be harmful. If you want a combo product, you may want to consider one containing a botanical repellant rather than DEET, since botanical repellents should be reapplied frequently.
- Reduce the need for a lot of repellent by wearing long sleeves and pants whenever possible, and avoiding fruity or floral scents — including the kind found in some fabric softeners, deodorants, body sprays or hair products.
- Avoid lingering around lakes or standing water.
Deciding which products to use on your children can be even trickier, since you want to make doubly sure the ingredients are safe. Follow these 10 guidelines for insect-proofing your kids:
1. According to the CDC, products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children under the age of three.
2. Look carefully at the package for age-related guidelines before using a product on children. Risk of toxicity through absorption of chemicals is higher for small children.
3. Apply repellent to your own hands and then rub it on your child, avoiding mouth, nose, eyes and any open cuts or wounds.
4. Do not apply any product to your child’s hands, since she may put them in her mouth.
5. After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water. This is particularly important when repellents are used repeatedly in a day or on consecutive days.
6. If you have a young infant, you may want to simply drape mosquito netting over her carrier or stroller, or make sure exposed skin is covered with clothing, rather than use a product on her skin.
7. Consider spraying your child’s clothes, rather than her skin, with insect repellent to discourage bugs from approaching — especially effective, of course, when it’s cool enough outside to wear long sleeves and pants. If repellent is applied to clothing, wash treated clothing before wearing again. (Again, check the product label.)
8. Don’t apply repellent under clothing, warns the CDC. The reason for this warning was a “bugger” to find, but the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Department of Entomology reports that applying repellent under clothing increases absorption of the chemical into the skin, which in may cause an adverse reaction depending on the repellent used.
9. To decrease the chance of a mosquito biting through clothing, try a spray repellent containing 0.5% permethrin, an odorless, colorless repellant that can be applied to clothing but not directly on skin.
10. If you or your child get a rash or other bad reaction from an insect repellent, stop using it immediately, wash it off with mild soap and water, and call your family doctor or local poison control center for further guidance.
11. Remember that just because a product is natural, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s nontoxic, especially if swallowed. Bug repellents do not always come in childproof packaging, so take care when using them, especially around young children.