Yes, it's that time of year where the pesky bloodsuckers known as mosquitoes come out to wreak havoc on our summertime fun. Outdoor activities from cookouts to bonfires and everything in between are plagued with the persistent swatting away of these pests. This causes people to resort to dousing themselves in chemicals to prevent mosquitoes from bothering them. Chemicals that are controversial, to say the least. Good thing mother nature provides us with natural ways to keep these bothersome bugs at bay.
Mosquitoes belong to the Diptera family of insects known as True Flies. They have two wings like all the True Flies but are unlike the rest due to the scales on their wings. Male and female mosquitoes differ in the appearance of their mouthparts. Female mosquitoes mouthparts have a long piercing-sucking proboscis while males have feathery antennae and mouthparts not suitable for piercing skin. This may make it seem like a mosquito’s main source of food would be blood, but nectar or a similar sugar source is their principal food.
No wonder the North American mosquito repellent market size was estimated at USD 969.6 million in 2016, with over 3,000 different species of mosquito and 176 of them in the United States. I know I sure don't like these vampirous vermin! However, I also know that I don't like the harmful chemicals and toxins found in these repellant and insecticide products.
There are several products grouped in the total North American mosquito repellent market size including repellent sprays, coils, creams and oils, vaporizers, and others such as mats, wearable bands, and candle. Demand and production of repellants have only been on the rise over the years. This is mostly due to the increasing threat of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, malaria, chikungunya, Zika virus, and yellow fever. While these products may do the trick in repelling mosquitoes and preventing the spread of diseases, they may also be doing some harm to your body.
Some of these products contain toxic chemicals that are regulated as pesticides. According to the EPA website: “People often think of the term pesticide as referring only to something that kills insects, but ‘pesticide’ is a broad term and includes products that don’t kill anything, such as insect repellents.” Thankfully, there are ”Minimum Risk Pesticides” which include essential oils that are exempt from regulation.
Though it would seem like the active ingredients in these products would be the only chemicals of concern, the inactive ingredients in many bug repellents are just as harmful. These two types of ingredients are used in all bug repellents. The active ingredients are the repelling chemicals that must appear on the label. Inert or inactive ingredients are everything else in the products and can range from solvents and preservatives to anti-caking or foaming agents and even fragrance. Unlike the active ingredients, inert or inactive ingredients are not required to be listed on the label.
DEET is probably the most controversial of the active ingredients of concern. It is actually an acronym for N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide and found to be one of the most effective repellents, even repelling ticks. While this may seem like a godsend for anyone that bothered by these bugs, it doesn't come without an added risk to your health. Large doses of DEET have been linked to skin blisters, seizures, memory loss, headaches, stiffness in the joints shortness of breath, and skin irritation. DEET is also linked to neurotoxicity that may lead to physiological and behavioral problems, especially with motor skills, and learning and memory dysfunction.
As if the health concerns of this chemical weren't bad enough already, it is quickly absorbed through the skin, increasing the risks and speeding up there onset. One study showed that 48% of the applied dose is totally absorbed within six hours. When mixed with the sunscreen chemical oxybenzone, it was found to be absorbed even more quickly. DEET has also been shown to cross the placenta: in animal studies, DEET was found in the fetus and in newborns up to three months old after exposing the mother to the chemical. It breaks down slowly in soil and has the potential to contaminate groundwater; it has been detected in groundwater, surface water, and drinking water.
This is just one of the many harmful chemicals that made the MadeSafe.org list of chemicals of concern in bug repellents. If you are like me and want to avoid chemicals like this at all costs, you are in luck. Mother nature has provided us with plenty of ways to repel these pests since the dawn of time. These include botanical plants and extracts like essential oils. Please note that these tips and alternatives are meant to reduce exposure to chemicals of concern and may work for casual settings to diminish bites, but cannot prevent diseases.
Mother nature created some plants with pharmacological and biological properties that make there extracts effective insect repellent. Because essential oils are highly concentrated and potent, they can be irritating to the skin. Make sure to do some research on the extracts you plan to use and make a small batch to test out first.
The most well known and widely used of these natural plant extracts is citronella. This method works best as part of a skin-applied mixture. This can be much more effective than burning the extract. Several studies show that candles only reduce bites by 50%. This oil is also volatile and evaporates quickly and so must be combined with another ingredient that can slow evaporation in order for it to be effective.
Clove oil is another naturally effective weapon in repelling mosquitoes and other bothersome bugs. In a study that tested the efficacy of five oils and various combinations of those oils, clove oil was found to be one of the two most effective mosquito repellents. Clove oil is also effective when mixed with other oils. When mixed with geranium oil or thyme oil, the mixture protected against bites for up to 2.5 hours.
Last up may be the most effective natural way to repel these pesky parasites. This is none other than the extract of lemon eucalyptus. Oil of lemon eucalyptus can be naturally derived through hydro-distillation, or it can be synthetically produced and listed as p-menthane-3,8-diol or PMD, which is the synthesized version. The EPA has approved PMD as an effective insect repellent. One study found that a eucalyptus-based repellent containing 30% PMD gave 96.89% protection for 4 hours, where DEET gave 84.81% protection. Proving that not only can mother nature work as good as the chemicals but even better! The CDC advocates for the use of PMD.
These are just a couple of the many natural alternatives to chemical repellents like DEET that have been linked to various health conditions like skin blisters, seizures, memory loss, headaches, stiffness in the joints shortness of breath, skin irritation, and more. Sometimes mother does know best, mother nature, in this case. Especially when extracts from lemon eucalyptus outperform DEET in trials. Just something to keep in mind when you are out and about enjoying outdoor activities this summer so you can repel mosquitoes the natural way!