Photo: Henry Leutwyler
I am a mosquito magnet. While they just buzz by my friends and family—apparently less appealing to the bloodsuckers—if I don’t douse myself with bug spray before every outdoor activity, BBQ, or cocktail party I will have five to ten golf ball-sized welts decorating my arms and legs. If you think I’m exaggerating, several dermatologists have asked me about possible exposure to exotic spiders. On a recent trip to Costa Rica I sprayed on 90% DEET about five times a day to protect myself. It worked, but the terrible smell and tingly feeling made me vow to never use traditional bug spray again.
DEET, the main ingredient in mainstream insect repellant, is a known neurotoxin, meaning it could be toxic to your brain (on top of irritating to your skin). Recently, Urvashi Rangan, director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center said, “We think that DEET and other chemical-based repellents should be used only if other, safer methods don’t work for you.” And now there’s the threat of chikungunya, the latest scary mosquito-borne disease hitting the Caribbean (and it could move north, to the U.S.). Growing even more paranoid about my unmanageable bug bites, I reached out to Jolene Brighten, a naturopathic medical doctor based in Oakland, California to shed some light on the topic as well as some great alternative solutions to over-the-counter bug spray.
“All popular brands that don’t tout being natural have DEET in them,” says Brighten. She said if you follow the direction on the bottle it may not be a huge problem, but things get iffy when you’re also using sunscreen that contains DEET or applying the bug spray multiple times a day. “The toxicity builds and because of the way it’s processed to the kidneys and liver it could lead to seizures and even death.” More sad news: the chemical also contaminates ground water. Brighten advises to reserve heavy-strength DEET for foreign travels when you might be exposed to malaria.
Thankfully, there is a healthier, natural way to repel insects without exposing yourself to excess toxins. “Research has shown that essential oils can be just as effective because they work in a similar way,” says Brighten, of the products that mask those scents, overloading the bugs’ olfactory senses, block their receptors, and confusing them, so that you become invisible to the critters—which is all I want in life.
So which oils do you need? First, a carrier oil like olive, sunflower, or coconut to dilute and distribute the essential oil, making it last longer and buffering potential irritation. (The latter actually has mild insect-repelling properties in itself.) Then comes the essential oil. Citronella, lemon eucalyptus, clove, thyme, lemongrass, and peppermint oils will all prevent mosquito bites (and smell nice!).
Mix 25 drops of essential oil for every two tablespoons of carrier oil and apply to your skin like lotion, or put them in a spray bottle. “Blending a broad range of oils can help,” says Brighten. “When hiking you may want to repel ticks and mosquitos, so you could use a mixture of citronella and rose geranium.” (Some people may still react to essential oils, so as always, test a small patch on your arm before applying anything all over your body.)
You don’t have to make your own to stay safe. Brighten likes All Terrain Herbal Armor Spray Insect Repellent ($9), which is DEET-free and sweat resistant, or Dr. Fedorenko True Organic Bug Stick ($30) and Bar ($20). Both are clinically proved to ward off insects for up to four hours. The stick applies like a sunscreen stick, which is great for ankles, wrists, or all over, and the bar comes in a tin like a cool, old-fashioned salve. Armed with my new invisible cloak of natural scents, I can finally stop worrying about getting itchy bites and using harmful chemicals.