Mosquito Repellent - Why Ingredients Matter

Summer is in full tilt and so are the bugs! When I was a  camp counselor, I spent many summers getting kids to spray their bug repellent when we would hike or sleep out in the woods. Kids spent the summer running around, falling, and getting scrapes or cuts. That was fine, until we heard the scream of a kid that just sprayed a DEET-containing commercial bug spray on an open cut. Yikes!!

DEET is considered the most effective and longest lasting repellent available for topical application as it was developed as a pesticide in the 1940's for the military.  It is said minimal impact on the environment (though it is "slightly toxic" to birds, fish and aquatic invertebrates according to the EPA), and has been deemed as "slightly toxic" for humans when used properly (like by grown ups).  And properly involves these steps:

  • Wash treated clothing before wearing again.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling and before eating, drinking, chewing gum, using tobacco or using the toilet.
  • If in eyes: Hold eye open and rinse slowly and gently with water for 15-20 minutes. Remove contact lenses, if present, after the first 5 minutes, then continue rinsing eye. Call a poison control center or doctor for treatment advice.
  • Do not apply to children’s hands. (what?)
  • When using on children, apply to your own hands and then put it on the child. (who does this??!)
  • After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water.
  • Do not apply on or near: acetate, rayon, spandex or other synthetics (other than nylon), furniture, plastics, watch crystals, leather and painted or varnished surfaces including automobiles. (because it will eat through it - literally - but totally spray that on your arms 😳)

Back to being at camp, having been a counselor and spraying kids down with DEET at a campout while making dinner over the fire, we never washed their hands before they ate as we never knew we were supposed to (nor did we really have a way to do that as it was pre hand sanitizers).  

So do you want to use it?  Me neither.

Additionally, DEET can irritate since it is technically a bug neurotoxin. DEET interacts with insects’ nervous systems so that they can not smell human sweat and blood. This explains that numb feeling you get if you accidentally spray it on your lips. We know kiddos and pets tend to get their mouths on things, so they might experience this more than us. DEET also has very high skin absorption and, although it will be eliminated quickly, it is recommended that you only spray areas that are exposed.

So, what to do if you want to make sure your fur babies and human babies aren’t accidentally absorbing or ingesting DEET? Essential oils have far less risks than DEET and are effective at warding off mosquitoes and ticks. It is recommended that multiple essential oils be blended in one repellent so they can work together to increase efficacy. Certain essential oils actually work against each other, so we sought out a blend of oils that work synergistically.

After much trial and error, our Deet-Free Mosquito and Tick Repellant contains a blend of

  • Citronella
  • Lemongrass
  • Geranium
  • Eucalyptus
  • & Cedar Wood essential oils. 

Citronella and Lemongrass are plant cousins and both mask the scents that attract insects. Geranium oil is a tick repellent. While the floral scent of geranium is pleasant to us, bugs find it repulsive. This is how the geranium plant has evolved to protect itself from pests!  Eucalyptus and Cedar Wood are bonus oils that work in combination with the three active ingredients for that synergistic effect I mentioned.  

Essential oils are known to be volatile in the environment, a word that sounds scary but really just means they evaporate quickly, so they don’t last as long as DEET. These oils are effective for up to two hours. As such reapplication is key.  

If you do get a bug bite, a dab of Aloe Vera Gel or Tamanu Oil which will keep you from scratching and allow it to feel better!

Have fun in the outdoors!


Written together with June Solow.

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