Mosquitoes are an inevitable downside to summertime. I absolutely hate being bitten, followed by the days of itching and temptation to scratch the welts. Unfortunately for me, I’m a mosquito magnet. Even if no one else is getting bit, my arms and legs are being eaten alive. Couple that with having spent the majority of my career traveling in parts of the world where mosquito-transmitted diseases – think malaria, dengue, and yellow fever – are rampant (you definitely don’t want any of those!), and you see why I've used a ton of bug spray over the course of my life.
I used to practically bathe in insect repellent (namely Deep Woods OFF) when outside in the evening or traveling in equatorial regions. Practically no bites! Hurray! But more recently I discovered a hidden downside, other than the "distinct smell" I would emit for several hours after application.
Most store-bought bug sprays contain DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide), which is extremely effective at warding off mosquitoes. Great! Exactly what I need! It’s also an insecticide. Should this be a concern?
Every year, around one-third of the U.S. population uses insect repellents containing DEET, available in more than 230 retail products. A study conducted in the late 1980's on Everglades National Park employees found that one-quarter of the participants experienced negative health effects that they attributed to exposure to DEET: rashes, skin irritation, dizziness, nausea, numb or burning lips, headaches, and difficulty concentrating. Sounds pleasant!
More recently, Duke University pharmacologist Mohamed Abou-Donia, who has spent more than 30 years researching the effects of pesticide exposure, recommended caution when using DEET. Why?
Abou-Donia's studies on rats found that frequent and prolonged exposure to DEET led to brain cell death in regions of the brain that control muscle movement, learning, memory, and concentration. Further, rats receiving an average human dose of DEET (40 mg/kg body weight) performed far worse than the control rats on physical tasks requiring muscle control, strength, and coordination. Sounds bad, right?
But it gets worse! Abou-Donia found that many of the rats’ surviving brain cells showed “signs of degeneration and damage consistent with the presence of oxygen free radicals, which can damage DNA and cell membranes in the brain and the nervous system.” These effects are consistent with the physical symptoms in humans reported elsewhere in the medical literature, especially by Persian Gulf War veterans.
And what about children? What might DEET exposure do to them? Here’s one last takeaway from Duke University-published research:
"Frequent and heavy use of DEET could cause brain deficits in vulnerable populations. Children in particular are at risk for subtle brain changes caused by chemicals in the environment, because their skin more readily absorbs them, and chemicals more potently affect their developing nervous systems. With heavy exposure to DEET and other insecticides, humans may experience memory loss, headache, weakness, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, tremors, and shortness of breath. The take home message is to be safe and cautious when using insecticides. Never use insect repellents on infants, and be wary of using them on children in general."
That sealed the deal for me! No more DEET in this house. EVER. So what to use instead?
HEALTHIER MOSQUITO REPELLENT OPTIONS
In 2005, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) granted approval to two healthier alternatives to DEET—picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus (an extract that is not the same as the pure essential oil)—for protection from mosquitoes. Another good choice, according to the National Coalition against the Misuse of Pesticides, is products containing geraniol, which is a primary chemical component in Rose, Palmarosa, and Citronella essential oils. Geraniol is also contained in lesser amounts in Lemon, Geranium, and other essential oils.
Note, however, the CDC’s disclaimer: ““Pure” oil of lemon eucalyptus (essential oil not formulated as a repellent) is not recommended; it has not undergone similar, validated testing for safety and efficacy and is not registered with EPA as an insect repellent.” This is not to say that essential oils are not effective in repelling mosquitoes, only that no company has yet been willing to pay the high cost of clinical trials on the efficacy of essential oils, as essential oils cannot be patented.
That being said, scientific studies on the efficacy of essential oils for repelling mosquitoes and other insects do exist. Interested in scanning some of them? This link will get you started!
MAKE YOUR OWN NATURAL, NON-TOXIC BUG SPRAY
Protecting yourself and your family from being eaten alive by mosquitoes and other ravenous insects is easier than you may think. It is simple and takes only seconds to make your own bug spray using basic ingredients plus essential oils.
This is a non-exhaustive list of oils that have been demonstrated to repel mosquitoes.
WORTH NOTING: There is no one right or perfect combination of essential oils. There are literally endless combinations of oils and ratios of one oil to another. It also seems that some oils are more effective than others depending on your individual body chemistry, as well as your location in the United States or other countries around the world.
Here’s a simple base recipe for a natural mosquito replellent. No DEET or other toxic chemicals to be found!
DIY NATURAL MOSQUITO REPELLENT
- 4 oz. spray bottle
- 2 oz. witch hazel or apple cider vinegar
- 2 oz. distilled water
- 50 – 80 drops of mosquito repelling essential oils (age 10+, fewer drops would be used if applying to small children)
Add all ingredients to the spray bottle. Be sure to leave room for the sprayer top. Shake well to combine. Shake before applying to arms, legs, clothing, etc. Take care to avoid your eyes. Reapply as necessary, likely every 2 – 3 hours.
Here are a couple of tested recipes to get you started.
And don't worry... the smell of the apple cider vinegar will dissipate as it dries on your skin.
I also saved a good assortment of other recipes here and here if you’d like to browse additional options. If you don't have all of the oils to make the above recipes, try a combination of 3 to 5 essential oils from among the mosquito-repelling ones you already have on hand. If the spray is not as effective as you’d like, add of few drops of an additional oil and see if it makes a difference.
If you come up with a combination you love, definitely let me know! I am always looking to add to my arsenal of effective recipes!
So, get out, be active, and enjoy every minute of your time outdoors! Wishing you the most amazing summer... and one that is free from pursuit by relentless mosquitoes!