Alternatives to Synthetic, Toxic Bug Repellent by Guest Blogger, June 30 2009, 0 Comments

Photo courtesy of J.o. Comia via Flickr.

Insects share the biosphere with us; but, like many a close neighbor, they can be pests. The use of synthetic chemicals are bad for everything in the biosphere, including us. But is there an alternative to synthetic, toxic, bug repellents? Is there a natural way to keep insects at enough distance that we can appreciate them as more than pests? Yes, there is.

Industrial-synthetic bug repellents contain powerful chemicals and concentrations thereof, which we are not exposed to in nature. "DEET" is the most prevalent example, a chemical invented by the US Army during WWII for jungle warfare. The National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC), a leg of the Environmental Protection Agency, observes some of the grosser negative effects of this chemical, including "neurological symptoms and seizures". Based on the NPIC findings, it is a good idea to minimize unnecessary exposure. The New York City Department of Health also states that "repellents with greater than 10% DEET should not be used on children."

And DEET is a suspected, though as yet "unclassifiable", carcinogen. The latter means that, statistically speaking, it is difficult to pinpoint DEET as the cause of significant cancer rates. This is the same argument used by the tobacco industry.

Synthetic, neurotoxic (often correlated with hormone disruption), and potentially carcinogenic, DEET loses its attraction. Even if you are not normally convinced that "synthetic" chemicals are a bad idea, and if instinct does not normally guide you by a naturalistic aesthetic, chances are you are open to DEET alternatives. Thankfully, we don't have to expose ourselves or our children to DEET or to diseases like West Nile Virus.

Specific plant oils have long been used by man to repel insects. Three such natural bug-repelling oils are lemon eucalyptus oil, rosemary oil and lavender oil. Not only are these oils natural, but they also don't smell like toilet cleanser—a big plus! In fact, they smell beautiful to us. Happily, bugs do not agree.

Lemon eucalyptus oil, for example, is thought to be as effective as the leading synthetics—including DEET. Lemon eucalyptus is so effective, in fact, that it is a common ingredient in the industrial stuff. You might recognize the smell. If you want to make a bug-repelling concoction at home, there are plenty of sources for natural oils, such as Mountain Rose Herbs. Mountain Rose also offers a ready-made concoction. Different producers use different recipes. You can have fun experimenting with your own!

I recommend beginning with one oil—your favorite, perhaps (mine is lavender). Stick a few lavender flowers in your jacket pocket and dab the pulse points with a little organic lavender oil. It is important to get the pulse points because these are the primary areas of epidermic excretion—where your skin emits gases, like CO2, that attract bugs. Chances are that one oil will prove effective. However, if you incline towards complexity, or if no single oil does the trick, begin experimenting with concoctions.

Currently, I am farming on the windward side of Maui. Translation: I live in a rainy jungle, literally. In the pockets where the wind doesn't blow, the mosquitoes conspire to eat people alive! However, my girlfriend and I have been using lemon eucalyptus oil; and we go happily un-pestered.

Another option when in buggy areas is to wear clothing that reduces skin exposure—loose, light and white, especially on hot days. As mentioned, and recognized in a 2004 Yale study, insects are attracted to epidermic secretions. Sticky and sweaty people are virtually marinating themselves for insects. If possible, rinse off and stay clean and cool. Let your skin breath naturally, even if under loose, light clothing. And, if you do decide to use natural oils, stop and smell the roses! Fun fact: rosemary oil (though not rose oil), is known to be effective.

Guest Blogger: Benjamin Bliumis