Swarms of insects and itchy bug bites are the darker side of outdoor summer fun. The West Nile virus has hit record highs in the U.S. Also of concern is Lyme disease and the emergence of new diseases like Babesiosis as recently reported by the New York times. In places with tropical climate we can add malaria and dengue to the list of dangerous diseases. Arm yourself with effective protection and find out how you can make your own natural insect repellent for everyday de-bugging.
Best insect repellent choices
DEET is the most highly effective insect repellent on the market to date and is the standard of comparison for all other products. Most repellents can be used on children who are at least two months old but an adult should apply the product. For infants younger than two months cover the baby carrier with a mosquito net. Although commercial insect repellents containing DEET and picaridin can be found on supermarket shelves, natural insect repellents may be a better choice in some cases, as they have fewer–or no–harmful effects on the body.
Insect repellent products for use on clothing
Some products containing permethrin are recommended for use on clothing, shoes, bed nets, and camping gear and are registered with the EPA for this type of use. Permethrin-treated clothing is highly effective as an insecticide and repellent, killing ticks, mosquitoes, and other arthropods even after repeated laundering. Some commercial products are available pretreated with permethrin. A combination of DEET on skin and permethrin on clothing is considered to be the most effective insect repellent strategy.
Natural insect repellent alternatives
To avoid using DEET or picaridin-based products, especially on young children, opt for natural insect repellents. Some good alternatives:
Soy-based products: Studies on alternative insect repellents have shown that soy-based products like Bite Blocker for Kids were the most effective alternatives to DEET-based products, performing better in some cases than products with a low concentration of DEET.
Oil of lemon eucalyptus (PMD) is the oil from the lemon eucalyptus tree. Studies have found that this natural insect repellent works as well as DEET against mosquitos and may also be effective against ticks. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends it as a natural DEET alternative. Note that this oil can be poisonous if it is ingested in large quantities and should not be used on children under age three
Other natural insect repellents such as citronella, peppermint oil, and other plant-based oils (basil, catnip, clove, garlic) have been found to have limited effectiveness; if you’re exposed to areas with disease-carrying insects, more effective products should be used. That said, you can make your own natural insect repellent at home from these herbal essential oils available in many health food and drug stores. Essential oils can irritate skin, so be sure to test on a small patch of skin before applying liberally. Use extra caution with children and don’t use on kids under three.
Make sure to get the best protection
Insect repellent effectiveness can vary a great deal from person to person and is markedly influenced by outside temperature, perspiration, exposure to water and other factors. Higher concentrations of a product’s active ingredient mean longer protection time. Products offering sustained or controlled release formulations may provide longer protection times. Whichever product you use, use according to directions, and if you’re getting bitten by insects, you should reapply the repellent or leave the area if possible.
For a list of available products and how long they keep you protected, see this chart from the University of Florida.
These recommendations are for domestic use in the United States where EPA-registered products are readily available. See the CDC Travelers’ Health website for additional recommendations on protection from insects when traveling outside the United States.
The EPA recommends the following precautions when using insect repellents:
- Apply repellents only to exposed skin and/or clothing (as directed on the product label.) Do not use repellents under clothing.
- Never use repellents over cuts, wounds or irritated skin.
- Do not apply to eyes or mouth, and apply sparingly around ears. When using sprays, do not spray directly on face—spray on hands first and then apply to face.
- Do not allow children to handle the product. When using on children, apply to your own hands first and then put it on the child. You may not want to apply to children’s hands.
- Use just enough repellent to cover exposed skin and/or clothing. Heavy application and saturation are generally unnecessary for effectiveness. If biting insects do not respond to a thin film of repellent, then apply a bit more.
- After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water or bathe. This is particularly important when repellents are used repeatedly in a day or on consecutive days. Also, wash treated clothing before wearing it again. (This precaution may vary with different repellents—check the product label.)
- If you or your child get a rash or other bad reaction from an insect repellent, stop using the repellent, wash the repellent off with mild soap and water, and call a local poison control center for further guidance. If you go to a doctor because of the repellent, take the repellent with you to show the doctor.
DEET-based repellents applied according to label instructions may be used along with a separate sunscreen.