Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them – Mosquitoes, Of Course
An Old Proverb Goes Like This:
If you think you’re too small to make a difference, than you haven’t spent a night with a mosquito.
If you’re hiking in a damp forest or near marshlands it’s guaranteed that mosquitoes will be with you for the duration of the hike. Fortunately, for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere mosquitoes are little more than annoying. Yes, they are known to spread various types of diseases, including serious ones like Malaria, Yellow Fever, or West Nile Virus. But in general these diseases are under control in North America and Europe.
The number of people that catch diseases from mosquitoes is minute – especially when you take into consideration the millions of people that get bitten by mosquitoes every single day (apparently mosquitoes bite, not sting, but we regress. Ed.)
However, this is not true for many other corners of the world. If you are planning a trip outside of North America or Europe, consult your doctor about additional vaccines that you should be taking. And furthermore, the destination of your travels may have some impact on the insect repellent that you choose for you and your family. Why is that so?
Mosquitoes are estimated to transmit disease to more than 700 million people annually in Africa, South America, Central America, Mexico and much of Asia with millions of resulting deaths. In Europe, Russia, Greenland, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other temperate and developed countries, mosquito bites are now mostly an irritating nuisance; but still cause some deaths each year. “Mosquitoes and Mosquito Repellents: A Clinician’s Guide”; by Mark S. Fradin: Annals of Internal Medicine, 1 June 1998. 128:931-940. Retrieved 10 July 2006.
DEET Is The Most Popular Repellent
Think back 20 – 25 years and remember the insect repellents that were available on the market back then, the ones that you took to summer camp. It was either Off or Muscol. They all contained diethyltoluamide, commonly known as DEET (NOT to be confused with DDT). Back in those days DEET was the benchmark of effective mosquito repellents. The stronger the DEET concentration of a given repellent the better it worked, and there were few available alternatives on the market. There was good reason for that. DEET is a synthetic chemical that was developed in 1944 for the use of the army. It was used extensively in Vietnam – for those that don’t remember, a war fought in jungles full of killer insects (though the insects were not the only ‘killer’ thing in the air). DEET remains the top recommended ‘go to’ product in regions where insect protection is a matter of life or death, not comfort. It works against disease carrying mosquito bites.
If you are travelling to a location where mosquitoes carry serious diseases, it makes sense to use the most effective protection: DEET based protection (seriously, we really are not on the payroll of DEET producers around the world, ed.). A single application of 30% DEET product should last somewhere in the range of 3 – 6 hours, with effectiveness diminishing over time. Products have been developed that release DEET slowly (the DEET is microencapsulated and released over time – in some cases as long as 12 hours). SAWYER Products Ultra 30 Insect Repellent or 3M’s Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion are two examples.
But – and this is a big BUT – when was the last time you were on a hiking trip in Ghana, or the jungles of Brazil? When was the last time you were exposed to Malaria carrying mosquitoes? Chances are, not recently. What if you’re only going on a hike in the US, Canada, or Europe? Should you still be using DEET?
To DEET or Not To DEET: That Is The Question
For most of our readers mosquitoes are a nuisance, not a threat, and we simply want to prevent the itching. But in recent years DEET has become the subject of debate concerning its impact on human health, especially that of children. DEET is a neurotoxin, and as such it has serious negative effects on the central nervous system. In extreme cases it can lead to motor deficits and memory dysfunction, and these risks are greater among children than adults. To make matters worse, some negative effects of DEET are intensified when combined with other ingredients found in DEET based products. And DEET can even melt plastic. All of that doesn’t sound too good, does it? And there’s more…
Unfortunately, the matter is not entirely clear in this debate as stakeholders spend copious amounts of money to protect their interests, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made it illegal for products that contain DEET to make any child safety claims. Health Canada, on the other hand, has limited DEET concentrations in commercially available products to 30%. So in context of the health risks associated with using DEET, doesn’t it make sense to look at some everyday use alternatives?
The Safest Insect Repellent Is None At All!
The first alternative that we take a look at is not a repellent at all. Consider other measures for your children instead of insect repellents. First of all, avoid strong scents when heading for the forest. They attract mosquitoes and other insects, such as bees. Wear loose fitting long sleeves and socks whenever possible, and consider getting your children a bug jacket, bug pants and/or a mosquito mask, especially if you are heading on a trip to areas where the bugs are really bad. While this advice may sound silly at first, read on about the chemicals contained in insect repellents, and you may consider this a viable option. A bug suit may look funny, but it’s guaranteed non-toxic, and it works.
Children and Insect Repellents
Before we continue with the topic of repellents, consider the following advice from your friends at TheHikingChild: because of their small size, children are more susceptible to the effects of insect repellents than adults are. As such, there are several ‘rules’ to follow when using insect repellents on and around children:
- Use insect repellents only when necessary;
- Keep repellents out of reach of children;
- Always have an adult put repellent on a child;
- When spraying repellent do it in a manner so that the child does not inhale the mist;
- Do not put repellent on a child’s hands because they put their hands in their mouths and in their eyes;
- Upon returning home, wash your child’s hands thoroughly with soap and water, as well as any other body part where repellent was applied directly to the skin;
- Do not use products that mix repellent with sunscreen (because reapplication times are usually different for repellents and sunscreens, which can lead to an ‘overdose’ of the chemicals found in repellents);
- Please follow your common sense!
Ok, so let’s continue.
Picaridin Insect Repellents
The first chemical alternative to DEET that we look at is Picaridin, an insect repellent developed in the 1980s against mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers. It resembles an essential oil found in the black pepper plant. The EPA characterizes products that contain Picaridin in the same class as products that contain DEET, that being “conventional insect repellents”. Most sources consider Picaridin equal to DEET as far as effectiveness is concerned when using an EPA approved repellent in accordance with instruction, and the World Health Organization recommended Picaridin protection against mosquitoes that carry diseases. Most importantly, according to the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) – a cooperative agreement between Oregon State University and the EPA – Picaridin is considered nontoxic when inhaled, and subsequently broken down and excreted within one day after entering the body. At present, there is also no correlation between the chemical and the development of cancer, and there are no neurotoxicity concerns, as is the case with DEET. So, in theory, Picaridin seems to be a safe alternative to DEET based products. However, the chemical is less popular and not field-tested as well as DEET, which means that there is much less data available concerning Picaridin. New studies and facts will emerge, and time will tell whether they are positive or not.
Nevertheless, based on available information the product works well and is competitive to DEET. The Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Lotion, for example, contains 20% Picaridin content and lasts up to 14 hours, which is even longer than microencapsulated DEET. We recommend lotion not pump-spray as this prevents users from inhaling the mist. A big advantage of Picaridin based products is that they are almost odorless; they do not possess that strong, pungent smell associated with DEET. So is Picaridin worth a try?
If you’re very serious about mosquito protection and need the strongest stuff out there, Picaridin works well, maybe even as well as DEET. We would certainly choose it over DEET for children (because children are much more susceptible to the negative effects of DEET than adults). For the adults, however, it’s not as ‘battle tested’ as DEET. If you’re doing a trip to Malaria country, you certainly want to be sure, and in that sense DEET has a lot going for it. On the other hand, if you’re going on a hike in your local woods, Picaridin, like DEET, is rather an overkill. Remember, Picaridin is still a synthetic chemical, a very powerful one at that. If you don’t really need it, why use it?
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellents
The next alternative to DEET that we look at are products containing the Oil of the Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE). The EPA classifies them as “biopesticide repellents”. This means that they are either directly derived from or synthetically mimic materials found in nature, in this case, the oils found in the Lemon Eucalyptus tree (which is native to Australia). Most repellents using OLE are actually using a chemical called PMD, which is a synthetic version of the essential oil itself.
OLE based products require greater concentrations of the active chemical to perform as well as DEET or Picaridin based products, and the effects last for a shorter time (which means that re-application must occur more frequently). The advantage of using OLE based repellents is that they are void of the negative side effects of DEET, and are natural in origin. There are plenty of testimonials suggesting that products containing 30% OLE work well in preventing mosquito bites, but most information suggests NOT using OLE as a substitute to DEET when travelling to high-risk areas, where the spread of disease through insect bites is higher. In fact, Repel® – the maker of Lemon Eucalyptus Natural Insect Repellent – makes this claim on its own website. It is also recommended NOT to use OLE based products on children younger than 3 years old because of potential skin and eye irritation. In short, OLE is not as good of a repellent as Picaridin or DEET, but it still works relatively well and is reportedly much better for your health than DEET (though certain drawbacks remain). So of the three chemicals presented thus far, it’s the best option for local adventure, but still not the best one out there.
Permethrin Insect Repellents
Permethrin is the next synthetic chemical in question. Chemically it resembles pyrethrum, a chemical found in the chrysanthemum flower, which has been used for centuries as a natural, effective insecticide. But the chemical is not an extract from the flower and is not ‘natural’. Permethrin is not an insect repellent but an insecticide. So while the other products prevent mosquitoes from biting you, they do not actually kill them. Permethrin does. Again turning to the NPIC,
“Permethrin affects the nervous system in insects, causing muscle spasms, paralysis and death”.
Various sources state that the chemical is of low toxicity to humans, but it has been found extremely toxic to other animals, such as cats. For example, there have been several reported cases of cats dying after coming in contact with dogs that were wearing Permethrin coated flee collars. That’s right… dying! The chemical also kills bees and is very harmful to fish and other aquatic animals. As such, is Permethrin a good alternative to DEET based products?
As opposed to the other chemicals, Permethrin should not be applied directly to the skin, but rather to textiles (your clothing, tents, backpacks, etc.). For the Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent the manufacturer recommends you apply the product directly to your clothing where it lasts for 6 weeks, or 6 laundry washes. The chemical is also used in public health mosquito control programs. While Permethrin based products are deemed “safe” for human use there are questions concerning that status. If you do decide to use it, carefully follow all of the instruction on the label, and just make sure your cat is not around. We wouldn’t touch Permethrin with a ten-foot pole.
Are There Any Repellents That Are Safe For Kids?
Up to now, all of the above products are commercially available and are guaranteed to work. Picaridin and OLE seem to possess less negative health implications than DEET based products, though they are not without their own problems. Permethrin? The cat thing does it for us. Furthermore, all four products are synthetic, and most may have other health implications that have not yet been discovered. But of the four chemicals discussed, OLE seems to be the ‘least’ toxic choice, but also the least effective (requiring the most re-applications). So are there any other options out there that are more natural, and completely non-toxic? We’ve saved the best for last.
A Safe and Natural Insect Repellent
Take a look at Dr. Mercola’s Bug Spray (just in case you’re wondering, we are not on Dr. Mercola’s payroll either, ed.). It’s DEET free, non-toxic, fully bio-degradable, safe for kids, and it certainly works well enough. It even smells good. It uses the essential oils of Citronella, Lemongrass, and Peppermint, and in addition Vanillin, a proven natural insect repellent. Because it is a natural, non-synthetic product, it needs to be reapplied every 2-3 hours, which is more often than the other products, but in our opinion your health is worth the extra hassle. As opposed to the other products, additional applications of Bug Spray do not increase neurotoxic chemical concentrations in your body. You apply it as all other insect repellents: on your neck, ankles, legs, arms, hairline, etc. You can also apply it to your clothing. Dr. Mercola’s is effective and safe for you, your kids, and even your pets. What more can your family and your cat ask for?
How To Make Your Own Insect Repellent
Finally, have you ever considered making your own insect repellent? It’s easy and it should be a fun activity for your family to do at home, with the added bonus that you can test your results together on the trail. All of the following ingredients will be available at your local health food store, pharmacy, or on Amazon.com.
You will need:
- A carrier bottle with spray nozzle, either 3.4 fl. oz. (100ml) or 6.8 fl. oz. (200ml) depending on the required amount
For a 3.4 fl. oz. (100 ml) bottle*, use:
- 4 drops – Lemongrass essential oil**
- 4 drops – Cytronella essential oil**
- 4 drops – Eucalyptus essential oil**
- 4 drops – Peppermint essential oil**
- 4 drops – Clear vanilla extract
- A carrier oil (it can be olive, grapeseed, sunflower, hazel or another oil of your choice – it is best if the oil is low in odor, such as grapeseed)
- Try to keep measurements precise
Pour all of the ingredients into the carrier bottle and give it a thorough shake. Spray onto your skin and rub in. Go for a hike in the woods, preferably with plenty of mosquitoes around so that you can check out the effects.
* Double the amounts to create the 6.8 fl. oz. (200ml) solution – obviously.
** Another obvious one – avoid use if you have a known irritation to any of the listed essential oils, and never apply essential oils directly to your skin as a rash may develop (they must be mixed with a carrier oil in correct proportions).
Final Recommendations Concerning Insect Protection
For DEET products:
Health Canada recommends the following usage for children:
For Oil of Lemon Eucaliptus products:
- Do not use on children below 3 years of age.
- Keep a lookout for skin irritation after the application of the product. If irritation occurs, wash with soap and water. Consult a doctor if the irritation intensifies.
- Keep the product out of eyes – it is a serious irritant to them.
For Permethrin products:
- Follow all instructions carefully.
- Strongly consider not using this chemical when children are around, and even more so in direct application to products that they touch or use.
There you have it. Insect protection from TheHikingChild. Happy trails.