4 natural bug repellents
Try these non-chemical alternatives to keep insects away and avoid bug bites naturally
The healthiest way to keep bugs at bay
While we love the summer, we don’t love the swarms of hungry bugs that come with it. The solution so far has been to grab your nearest brand-name, bug repelling spray in order to ward off the pesky nips. However, many of these products contain DEET, an insect-repellent yet potentially toxic ingredient that can be harmful to your health. While conclusive studies on DEET are still being debated, (believe it or not, the jury is still out with more tests needed) the good news is that there are chemical-free, bug-be-gone options.
“Look online and there is a list of many essential oils used as natural bug repellents, but only a few have been studied to repel insects,” says Dr. Shelly Reitkop, a Naturopathic doctor in Toronto. The most common (and strongest to our scent receptors) is citronella, but surprisingly, it’s not the most effective. “The citronella scent is strong and recognizable, this may be a reason why people think it works the best,” says Reitkop. “Citronella works well the first 40 minutes, but then wears off.” Plus, it’s an essential oil, which used on its own, could cause irritation when applied directly on the skin.
On store shelves, citronella products are usually a mix of citronella and other compounds (such as witch hazel and tea tree) to help counteract potential irritation. To be on the safe side some products even recommend spraying it on clothes or the hair, instead of the skin. Many are also not recommended for nursing or pregnant mothers, or to be used on children under three. Reitkop herself prefers citronella candles to a spray.
It’s the lesser-known essential oils such as eucalyptus, geranium, soybean and neem that pack more of a punch, with eucalyptus providing up to 120 minutes of protection. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recommends eucalyptus oil to help protect against mosquitoes carrying West Nile. “In one study by the CDC, eucalyptus provided up to 120 minutes of protection while one over-the-counter DEET brand provided 88 minutes,” Reitkop says, and “while it’s not as effective as a solution that has 23% DEET, two hours is pretty good.” You’ll find eucalyptus in Eco Trail Certified Organic Shampoo Shower Gel Outdoor Pleasure ($6.49, 250 mL), and another powerful oil, soybean, in eco. kid Outback Jack Outdoor Spray ($12.99, 200 mL).
Also an essential oil, neem can be used for non-pesticide management. Meaning that it doesn’t deter bugs like citronella, geranium, eucalyptus and soybean, but instead acts as a toxin for the insect. “Once ingested it confuses the bugs: they think they’ve already eaten [and eventually starve], they forget to fly, even reproduce,” says Reitkop. Neem is an ingredient in Karooch Neem Catnip Oil Outdoor Spray ($12.19, 150 mL).
If your preference is to not put anything on the skin, stick-on patches like Buzz Patch ($9.50 for 24 patches) work by simply pressing it to release lemon eucalyptus and citronella into the air around you. Stick it onto clothing – even your baby’s stroller – to ward off the critters. Don’t Bite Me ($8.29) and Omezone Insect Defend Patch ($7.49) need to be applied two hours before you head outdoors. “It delivers vitamin B1 and aloe into your body and then releases it through your pores – the smell helps mask the carbon dioxide coming from our bodies, which is what attracts the mosquitoes to you,” says homeopath practitioner Kelli Ewing from Toronto. The box also claims that the patches are waterproof, safe to use on children and can last up to 36 hours.
Soothe bites naturally
Already been bitten? Tea tree oil, chamomile, lavender and peppermint can help to lesson the itch and reduce inflammation. Reitkop’s favourite D.I.Y. remedy: mix a drop of all four essential oils together. Then dilute with two ounces of witch hazel or castor oil (these lesson potential irritation of the essential oils). To lesson a bug bite reaction: inflammation, redness, swelling and itching, Ewing advises taking ledum, a homeopathic remedy, before heading outdoors, or to reduce symptoms after a mosquito attack.