Spending time in nature has a multitude of benefits, but sometimes the outdoors can have its drawbacks - especially if you're in a spot that is crawling with bugs that love to feast on warm-blooded people like us. Itchy, painful and inflamed bites can certainly put a damper on your forest bathing experience, but making your own natural bug repellent can help arm you against those critters without endangering your overall health.
I'm a cottage-obsessed nature lover and can easily live without the city comforts and conveniences when I'm in the woods. I grew up in the prairies, in Winnipeg and went to summer camp near there where the mosquitoes were so big and vicious that if you swatted one, they'd often swat you right back.
No matter how bad the bug situation is, I can't resort to using conventional bug repellents to protect me.
Most traditional bug sprays use DEET as the primary ingredient. And sure, DEET works, but it also comes with its own health risks.
Health Concerns of DEET
- DEET has been shown to inhibit the nervous system
- Been shown to compromise the immune system in animals
- Associated with sperm mutations and epigenetic changes in rats, when combined with other pesticides.
Here in Canada where I live, DEET is permitted in bug sprays but the government recommends children under the age of 12 "do not use a DEET product on a daily basis for more than a month" and babies under 6 months should not use them at all.
When Should You Use DEET?
Suddenly bugs have become a lot riskier than the annoying itchy bite. With concerns over West Nile Virus, Zika Virus and Lyme Disease, you can use your own discretion and safety measures which would include covering your face with a mask when spraying, not touching your eyes, ears or mouth if using, and bathing thoroughly as soon as possible after use.
The Environment Working Group states:
"Among the three repellent chemicals that are EWG’s top picks is DEET, which is widely used but much maligned. DEET's safety profile is better than many people assume. Its effectiveness at preventing bites is approached by only a few other repellent ingredients. DEET isn't a perfect choice nor the only choice. But weighed against the consequences of Zika disease and West Nile virus, we believe it is a reasonable one."
You will need to weigh the risks, pros and cons based on where you live, your exposure and other factors that could increase your risk.
Of course if you're in a high risk area and it's for a short duration, there's always bug net. Nerdy but effective!
What Else Is In Conventional Bug Repellent?
DEET isn't the only ingredient in bug repellent that gives me pause. I took a look at a bug repellent made by Johnson and Johnson, one of our good 'ol healthwashing friends. In addition to DEET, they use:
- Fragrance: This is an umbrella term for thousands of chemicals that are untested and potentially unsafe. Fragrance is also used in beauty care and cleaning products, and can trigger allergic reactions, respiratory issues like asthma, headaches and hormonal disruptions.
- Ethanol: Otherwise known as alcohol, ethanol is used as an emulsifier in bug spray and can also be found in disinfectants and anti-bacterial soaps and hand washes. It's associated with skin conditions like dermatitis, psoriasis and eczema and can disrupt our skin's microbiome.
- Butane, propane, isobutane: These propellants help spray the liquid from the can. Inhaling these petroleum products can impact both the brain and the heart, plus inhalant abuse - you may have heard of huffing - can impact children and teens. And these chemicals are highly flammable! They're not the kind of thing I want around my campfire.
Natural Bug Repellent Options
The good news is that there are many natural bug repellent options and you can easily DIY your own bug spray. Many traditional bug sprays incorporate essential oils like citronella, eucalyptus, camphor and others into their formulations and with good reason: they work. Research shows that plant-based oils can protect against common bugs like mosquitoes.
Some of the natural bug repellent options are:
- Citronella. Citronella can provide up to two hours of protection against mosquitoes. This small study of citronella candles and incense discovered they reduced bites by about 40% and 35% respectively. Interestingly, in this study of citronella and lemongrass, the researchers noted that the essential oils were more effective than DEET because the mosquitoes had developed a resistance.
- Clove. This study showed that clove oil tested 100% repellency for larvae, while another study found it protected against mosquitoes for 4-12 hours depending on the concentration.
- Coconut oil. Is there anything that this oil can't do? Evidence indicates that coconut oil can deter mosquitoes.
- Eucalyptus. This study showed that eucalyptus oil tested 100% repellency for larvae, and can help repel mosquitoes, ticks and other insects.
- Peppermint. Peppermint can protect us from flies and mosquitoes.
- Ylang ylang. In one study of ylang ylang and lemongrass, the ylang ylang offered over 98% protection against mosquitoes.
- Witch Hazel. This plant is an excellent toner and astringent that is often used in natural beauty care. It can help address itchiness and inflammation from bug bites if they occur.
As I've mentioned before, the quality of essential oils you use is important. If you're going to opt for a natural bug repellent, ensure that the essential oils will actually protect you and do what the company claims they will.
If you're on board with making your own natural bug repellent, this is my favourite recipe to use. I whip up batches of this every summer and spray liberally as needed. And, unlike some traditional bug sprays, this one actually smells good too!
Yield: 2 cups
- 1 cup Witch Hazel
- 1 cup water
- 1 Tbsp Vodka (optional)
- 10 drops citronella or lemongrass essential oil
- 10 drops clove essential oil
- 10 drops eucalyptus essential oil
- 10 drops peppermint essential oil
- Combine all ingredients in your glass spray bottle.
- Shake before use.