There's nothing that can kill a pleasant summer night more than finding out you've just become a moveable feast for your backyard's insect population. But should you really slather yourself in potentially harmful chemicals just to keep a few bug bites away?
That's a risky gamble nowadays. Rates of dangerous diseases such as West Nile virus and encephalitis (both carried by mosquitoes) and Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, ehrlichiosis and other tick-borne diseases are skyrocketing, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Rates of Lyme disease alone have doubled in the past 15 years. But weigh that against insect repellents that either don't work or could pose a risk of nerve damage or severely irritated skin, and it's hard to wonder whether a few bites are really that bad.
The public-health experts at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) seem to think that those bites really are worth avoiding, and in a new report, they lay out the pros and cons of all the bug-repellent ingredients on the market. They pored over independent and government tests on insect-repellent safety and effectiveness and determined which ingredients you should be looking for, and which you should be leaving behind.
The Worst: Botanical or "Natural" Bug Repellants
And here's why: Every bug-repelling chemical applied to your skin must be registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a process that involves companies submitting evidence that their products work. But natural ingredients, like citronella oil, aren't considered chemicals and are exempt from registration and, therefore, efficacy testing, the authors write. There's little evidence that they'll protect you against dangerous insect-borne diseases such as Lyme disease or West Nile Virus. Most tests EWG analyzed found that botanical repellents provide little, if any, protection, and those that do work often need very frequent reapplication to protect you. Furthermore, many of these natural oils, particularly citronella, geraniol and lemongrass oils, contain known allergens at high concentrations, which means frequent reapplications can cause itchy skin from your bug spray. EWG doesn't think botanical sprays are all bad though. "Products based on botanical extracts may be worth trying if bug-borne diseases are not known to be a problem where you are going," their report suggests. The group recommends testing your product of choice on small patches of your skin first to make sure it doesn't irritate your skin.
6 Natural Remedies for Bug Bites
The Not-That-Bad: Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
This is the only plant-based repellent EWG recommends, because the oil is actually processed into a highly concentrated solution called para-menthane-3,8-diol, or PMD, which is required to undergo the EPA registration and efficacy testing. But even it's not perfect. Products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus or PMD aren't very effective against the mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus, many contain citronellol, a known allergen, and the ingredient isn't recommended for use on children younger than 3.
The Surprising Second-Best: DEET
DEET, EWG found in its research, is an effective repellent with a bad, bad reputation. Though extremely high concentrations of the chemical (products that contain 100 percent DEET) have caused a few isolated cases of neurological damage, and the chemical can irritate skin and eyes, a government safety analysis revealed that severe side effects from using DEET are seen in as few as 1 in 100 million people. Products containing 30 percent DEET, the most effective concentration, are the best choices for people traveling to tropical regions where malaria and Dengue fever are common or in U.S. regions plagued with Lyme, West Nile, or other insect-borne diseases, the report found. In fact, it's the only chemical that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for repelling ticks that carry Lyme disease. "DEET isn’t a perfect choice nor the only choice," the report concludes. "But weighed against the consequences of Lyme disease and West Nile virus, we believe it is a reasonable one." A word to the wise: DEET can damage plastics and fabric so take care when using it on or near clothing or eyeglasses.
The Best: Picaridin
Nearly as effective as DEET, picaridin, a chemical that's only been on the market since 2005, can protect you against disease-carrying mosquitoes and ticks without the skin-irritating qualities and strong odor of DEET, the EWG analysis found. It also won't damage your clothes or glasses. An added bonus, picaradin doesn't evaporate from your skin as quickly as DEET, which means it's effective for much longer. A product with a 20 percent concentration of picaridin can provide all-day protection from mosquitoes and ticks, the report concludes.
DEET is a common ingredient found in dozens of repellents, but here are a few that contain picaridin:
• Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin
• Cutter Advanced
• Natrapel 8-hour
• OFF! Active
• OFF! FamilyCare
• Walgreens Light & Clean
These products can contain other harmful ingredients, such as synthetic fragrances (which can also be allergenic) and hormone-disrupting preservatives that Rodale News regularly suggests you avoid. To minimize your exposure to those ingredients, EWG recommends tailoring the product you use to the intensity of bug and disease risks.
5 Completely Nontoxic Mosquito Repellents
And lastly, just like sunscreens, insect repellents are an imperfect way to keep bugs away. Here are some basic precautions EWG suggests you always take:
• Give bugs a smaller target. Cover up exposed skin with light-colored clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, long pants, bandanas and high-collared shirts. Tuck your pants into your socks when hiking to keep ticks and chiggers off your body.
• Blow bugs away. According to entomologists, mosquitoes aren't very ambitious fliers and can be deterred by as little as a 1.5 mile-per-hour wind gust. Create your own windstorm with a rotating fan, which should provide enough of a gust to keep bugs away. Plus, fans help dissipate the carbon dioxide you exhale, and reduce body heat, both of which have been found to attract mosquitoes.
• Eliminate their breeding grounds. Eliminating sources of standing water will help keep mosquitoes away, since mosquitoes can’t breed without water. Empty kiddie pools when not in use, keep trashcans upside down during rainstorms, and keep rain barrels covered. Ticks require more persistence, so try these 5 Ways to Keep Lyme Disease out of Your Yard.
For more tips and information, check out EWG's full guide to better bug repellents.
Published on: July 17, 2013
Updated on: July 18, 2013