"Natural" is hot. Today you can find a "natural" version of everything from eye shadow to dog food. But what about natural insect repellents? What's in them, and do they actually work? back to top
What are natural insect repellents?
Natural insect repellents are defined less by what they do contain than by what they don't. DEET is a chemical that has been used in insect repellents for years, and it has yet to be topped for its bug-battling power. But there's been some controversy about whether or not DEET, which scares off mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and biting flies, is safe for humans to absorb through their skin or breath. There have been rare reports of seizures in children and other serious disorders linked to the use (or overuse) of DEET, and this has have gotten some people very nervous. Even though the government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that DEET shouldn't cause any health problems when used as directed, some people prefer to play it safe and try something else to keep away the little critters.
Some people choose essential oils: strong-smelling, concentrated substances made from plants. Oils that have been used to ward off insects include citronella, geranium, eucalyptus, cedar, peppermint, pennyroyal, and many others. Only a few of these oils have been scientifically studied to see how well they hold up against an army of insects. back to top
What do they do?
One thing natural insect repellents appear to do is confuse bugs, primarily mosquitoes. When a mosquito spies you moving from half a mile away, it heads straight for you to get close enough to sense your body heat, your breath, and your unique odor to see whether you'd make a good meal. (Mosquitoes have an uncanny ability to sniff out and be drawn to body odors invisible to the human nose.) But if your body's normal odors are being masked by some other strong odor, one that the skeeter doesn't particularly like, the greedy bugger may just skip you and look for another victim. Or maybe not. back to top
Do any of them work?
No natural insect repellent has been shown to work as well or as long as DEET. But some have been shown to work. Here are two:
Do they work the same for everybody?
- Citronella. This lemony scented oil is made from a tropical Asian grass related to lemongrass, a common ingredient in Thai food. It's the most popular plant-based oil used in natural insect repellents. Citronella products come in the form of sprays, lotions, and little towelettes to use on your body as well as candles to burn in your backyard. Using citronella on your skin appears to ward off mosquitoes better than trying to smoke them out of the air.
Tests have shown that citronella products used on the skin can help repel insects, but only for about two hours, and they may start to lose their oomph after the first 40 minutes. In contrast, DEET products can last up to eight hours.
As for citronella candles, their smoke may be almost as bad as their smell where mosquitoes are concerned. One study found that people near a citronella candle got fewer mosquito bites than unprotected people, but not that many fewer. Other tests have found that citronella candles give no protection at all. It may be that their scent just gets too weak in the outdoor air to do much good.
Another thing to remember about citronella is that, while it's "natural," it's not harmless. Although it may smell pleasant, citronella oil, like most essential oils, can be toxic or even fatal if you swallow it.
- Bite Blocker. This plant-based product combines soybean oil, geranium oil, and coconut oil according to a formula that came from Europe. Studies have shown that it can protect against mosquitoes for up to three-and-a-half hours. It comes in the form of oils and sprays and has a distinct odor that some people consider pungent, although the label refers to it as a "light country scent." Note that, like citronella, the geranium oil in this product can be toxic if swallowed. back to top
One of the biggest mysteries of the biting-insect world is why they find some people so much more attractive than others. Mosquitoes also find certain parts of the same person especially delicious, like the head, feet, or ankles. You may find that your friend has great success with a natural insect repellent, while you can spray it on over and over and the bugs still find you irresistible.
Unfortunately, the only way to know whether a natural insect repellent will work for you is to try it. To give it a fair shake, use it on every square inch of your exposed skin and try reapplying after 40 minutes or so. (To put any kind of insect repellent on your face, you should always apply it to your hands first and rub a thin layer on your forehead, cheeks, and chin, avoiding your mouth and eyes. Then wash your hands.) You'll probably want to conduct your experiment someplace where you can run inside if the feeding frenzy gets too wild. back to top
The bottom line
Some natural insect repellents may protect some people from mosquitoes for relatively short periods of time. If you use them, remember to reapply often. And be aware that there is no evidence that they can protect against ticks, which can carry Lyme disease.
Even if you have success with natural insect repellents for everyday use, you may want to consider using something stronger if you're planning to go for a long hike in the woods, say, or if you're sitting around a campfire at night toasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories. The sad truth is that the more mosquitoes there are, the more likely they are to bite you. back to top
Other natural tips
- Avoid using flowery scented soaps, perfumes, lotions, and hair-care products, which tend to attract mosquitoes.
- Wear beige clothing (like khaki), which may make you less attractive to them.
- If your natural insect repellent conks out and you get bitten, put a dab of peppermint toothpaste or Tiger Balm on your bites. Both of these substances contain menthol, a healing ingredient that may have soothing effects. back to top