Natural Bug Repellents

Are bugs taking the fun out of your active outdoor lifestyle? Natural bug repellents are a great option to keep outdoor insects at bay without exposing yourself to synthetic pesticides. And there are many effective non toxic and less toxic options bug repellent options available for what’s bugging you.

DEET Based Repellents – Are They Safe?

DEET (N, N -Diethyl-meta-toluamide) is the most common pesticide in bug sprays. Many of you may be worried about the safety of using DEET. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) there have been fewer than 50 cases of significant toxicity from DEET exposure have been reported in the medical literature over the last 45 years. These cases include severe skin irritation, blistering, and burning in some individuals. Frequent or prolonged topical applications of DEET may result in central nervous system toxicity and there have been a few cases of reproductive and developmental effects.

In animal studies DEET has been shown to cause neurological and behavioral effects, including ataxia, locomotor impairment, restlessness, seizures, encephalopathy, respiratory distress, neurotoxicity, and even death.

However, in 2014 the EPA completed a review on the safety of DEET based on current scientific knowledge and concluded, “the normal use of DEET does not present a health concern to the general population, including children.”

Natural Bug Repellents

If you would like to avoid DEET I can tell you from personal experience that there are lots of natural pesticide options. I’ve hiked and camped all over the country and have protected myself from marauding packs of mosquitoes and flies using only non toxic and natural methods.

The Swatting Method – my personal favorite - but not for everyone.

Bug Barrier Clothing – This lightweight, usually polyester mesh clothing, is an effective insect shield against all types of biting bugs. My Bug Baffler shirt saved me from exsanguination during a June camping trip to the UP of Michigan.

Although completely non toxic, (this is NOT clothing treated with permethrin) the polyester mesh is a bit scratchy. Bugshirt.com offers a 100% cotton version. You may feel somewhat silly while wearing these bug barriers, but they are great alternatives to applying insect repellent.

Cedar Oil – Cedar oil is my go-to bug solution becomes it acts as both a repellant and an insecticide. Plus, I love the smell. I’ve used Wondercide products as an outdoor insect repellant and as an indoor insecticide.

Safety – Cedar oil comes from cedar trees. Cedar trees have many natural toxins, or biocides, that protect them from dry rot, mold and insects. However, no human or pet safety concerns have been identified.

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus - Lemon eucalyptus oil is derived from the leaves and twigs of the lemon-scented eucalyptus, (para-Menthane-3,8-diol is the synthesized version used in most commercial preparations). The only plant-based repellent recommended by the CDC.

Safety: No safety concerns have been identified.

The effectiveness of oil of lemon eucalyptus in various brand name formulations as registered with the EPA are:

  • Citrapel Lotion – 30% concentration/6 hrs of protection from mosquitoes and ticks
  • Fite Bite 6 Hour - 30% concentration/6 hrs of protection from mosquitoes and ticks
  • Repel Essential Insect Repellant - 30% concentration/6 hrs of protection from mosquitoes and ticks
  • OFF! Botanicals (uses synthesized version of oil) – 10% concentration/2 hrs of protection from mosquitoes and ticks

Less Toxic Bug Repellents

Picaridin: Picaridin is structurally based on chemicals in pepper and appears to interfere with the mosquito's ability to smell its prey. It may be listed on products as KBR 3023 or by its chemical name, 2-(2-hydroxyethyl)-1-piperidinecarboxylic acid 1-methylpropyl ester. It has been widely used in Europe and Australia and has been available in the U.S. since 2005. Picaridin is odorless, non-greasy and does not irritate the skin.

Safety – Although there is limited data, the studies I read indicate that picaridin has very low toxicity and does not appear to cause adverse neurological or reproductive effects.

Effectiveness – Available in 7% to 20% concentrations (providing protection from mosquitoes and/or ticks for 4-10 hours).

The effectiveness of Picaridin in various brand name formulations as registered with the EPA are:

  • Centura Fly and Mosquito Repellent Spray – 20% concentration/8 hr protection mosquitoes and ticks
  • Go Ready Insect Repellent - 20% concentration/8 hr protection mosquitoes and ticks
  • KBR 3023 All Family Insect Repellent Cream - 20% concentration/14 hr protection mosquitoes and ticks
  • Natrapel 8-hour Insect Repellant – 20% concentration/8 hr protection mosquitoes and ticks
  • Cutter Advanced Outdoorsmen Insect Repellent – 20% concentration/4.5 hrs mosquito protection
  • Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin - 10% concentration/6 hrs for mosquitoes/7 hrs for ticks
  • Walgreens Light & Clean – 7% concentration/ 4 hr protection from mosquitoes

More Toxic Bug Repellents

If you still plan to use DEET-based products follow the guidelines below to protect your health.

ATSDR guidelines for use of DEET :

To prevent the possibility of adverse effects, products containing DEET should not be used on children younger than 2 months of age. For children over 2 months and for adults, the use of a product with a concentration no greater than 30% DEET is advised. Use the lowest concentration DEET product that will provide adequate protection. Reapply the repellent only after effectiveness diminishes with time.

Lotions, liquids or stick forms of DEET might be safer to apply, as they are less likely than aerosol formulations to be inadvertently sprayed into the eyes or inhaled. Avoid long-term use or frequent total body application. Finally, do not apply DEET to the hands of children who might put their fingers in their mouths. When using DEET, avoid contact with the eyes and mucous membranes. Do not apply DEET under occlusive clothing such as diapers or tight-fitting clothes. Avoid spraying DEET onto synthetic fabrics, watch crystals, plastic eyeglass frames, or other plastic material, as the DDET could damage them. Do not apply DEET over wounds, broken skin, or eczema. Once returning indoors, wash the repellent from the skin.”

DEET<30% concentration is considered safe by the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the EPA.

  • Bug Off
  • Buzz Off
  • Cutter
  • OFF! Active
  • OFF! Family Care
  • OFF! Deep Woods
  • Repel
  • Ultrathon

Natural pesticides are an effective way to keep the bugs away and also protect your health. So there's no reason not to try some of the many natural bug repellents available.

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