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  • Kate Egelhof

What's the buzz on bug spray?

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

It’s summer in beautiful northern Minnesota, and everyone is excited to get outside while there isn’t any snow on the ground. The mosquitoes, ticks, and biting flies all enjoy the great outdoors too, and they’re waiting to make us into a tasty meal. With Zika and West Nile Virus spread through mosquito bites and the range of diseases and parasitic infections carried by ticks (including Lyme disease and anaplasmosis), it’s more important than ever to protect ourselves. There’s a dizzying range of options on the market, from traditional chemical repellents to natural and botanical oil blends, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

DEET, developed by the U.S. Army after World War II for use in jungle warfare, is one of the most commonly used insect repellents on the market. Mosquitoes and other insects locate prey through olfactory (smell) receptors on their antennae, and scientists believe DEET works by making us smell distasteful. Unfortunately, 2013 studies show that mosquitoes can get accustomed to repeated DEET exposure and can learn to ignore the smell. More concerning is the potential for harmful side effects, including neurological problems (from dizziness to seizures), skin reactions, and burning eyes; also, DEET has an unpleasant, oily texture, a strong smell, and can actually melt plastic. It’s not surprising that many people are looking for safer alternatives.

In terms of conventional repellents, there are several non-DEET alternatives available from most major bug spray brands (including OFF! and Cutter). Picaridin, derived from a plant extract from the pepper family, is newer in the U.S. market but has been popular in Europe and Australia for some time. Picaridin is odorless and non-greasy; it evaporates more slowly from the skin than DEET, so it doesn’t have to be reapplied as frequently, is considered more effective against biting flies and won’t damage fabrics or surfaces. Para-menthane 3, 8 diol, also known as citriodiol, is a chemically synthesized version of oil of lemon eucalyptus; it smells similar to menthol and is effective for up to 6 hours, though it may cause a reaction for those with sensitive skin. IR3535 is a synthetic amino acid, effective from 4-8 hours and with no odor; the only reported side effect may be eye irritation.

Indigenous peoples worldwide have been using plants’ natural self-defense mechanisms as insect repellents for thousands of years. Natural and plant-based alternatives are becoming more well-known and popular as consumers become more conscious of what they put in their bodies and more aware of the different options currently on the market. Citronella, which many of us know from scented candles, is derived from a species of lemongrass and works by masking the odors that make us attractive to mosquitoes. Lemongrass essential oil is also an option; cedar oil, rosemary, and geranium oils also have been found to have repellent properties. Some people may experience skin irritation from botanical and essential oil blends, so a patch test is recommended for first-time use; also, botanical repellents may need to be reapplied more frequently than conventional repellents. However, for those wishing to avoid synthetic chemicals or explore organic and sustainable alternatives, natural bug sprays are safe and effective (and also smell much more pleasant). Harmony Co-op sells both a bug spray (Greenerways Organic Bug Repellent), containing citronella oil, lemongrass, and cedar oil, and Badger Bug Balm, which has beeswax as a base (so it can nourish your skin while deterring insects).

Aside from the repellents mentioned above, other ways to prevent or decrease insect bites during the summer months include: mosquito nets, light-colored clothing (mosquitoes are attracted to dark colors), dietary changes (mosquitoes are more attracted to beer drinkers and yeast), staying inside during peak insect activity (dawn and dusk), and wearing long sleeves and pants when outdoors. Whatever options you choose, there are ways to get outside and enjoy nature without becoming a walking snack bar!

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