No one can argue the effectiveness of DEET in warding off blood sucking insects but if given a choice would we consciously apply chemicals onto our skin which has the ability to melt plastic and leave a toxic residue around us whenever we get into the water.
Although findings proving the risk of using DEET have been low in comparison to the percentage of users, there has been some evidence showing cases of related brain damage and seizures in children (5), with indications on trials carried out on rats demonstrating it may have an effect on birth rates and birth mortality at high doses. More common side effects are rashes, skin irritation, numb or burning lips, nausea, headaches, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, blistering and scarring with urticaria or dermatitis resulting from topical DEET exposure, being noted in both children and adults (4,5,7). Another study published in 2008 in the journal BMC Biology by the French Institute of Development Research, came to the conclusion that DEET interferes with the action of some enzymes essential for the functioning of the nervous system in insects and possibly in mammals and although more research is needed, this presented a cause for concern (5).
Luckily there are things we can do to minimise bug attacks using a more natural approach which can only be good for ourselves as well as our children.
Sitting near or placing a fan outside can do much for disrupting mosquito flight patterns making it difficult for them to land on you in the first place, but what can you do if this option isn’t available.
Picaridin is a repellent formulated using the molecule of a pepper plant that has performed well in consumer trials. The data that does exist, demonstrates that the chemical has been deemed safe, with the World Health Organisation recommending picaridin (3) as a healthier alternative to DEET. Prepared formulas are Smidge, Moskito Guard, EcoCitrocin.
In trials of natural compounds (called botanicals), the insect repellents that contain essential oils like citronella, cedar and lemongrass do seem to offer some protection but need to be reapplied every hour, more if you are sweating. The formulas which seemed capable of providing greater protection (up to 6 hours or more) were those that contained a 30% oil of lemon eucalyptus base (3). You can buy pure lemon eucalyptus from Plant Therapy, available through Amazon here. (Always dilute to 2.5% to 4% in witch hazel or oil). Plant Therapy also do a formula called Nature Shield which contains lemon eucalyptus synergistically combined with other oils and a kid’s safe formula called Shield Me. Reviews on www.planttherapy.com seem very promising.
Oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is derived from the eucalyptus leaves of the Eucalyptus Citriodora tree, is the only plant-based active ingredient for insect repellents approved by the CDC (United States Centres for Disease Control) (7) and is listed in natural repellents under the names Citriodiol or Citrepel 75. Prepared formulas are Repel Lemon Eucalyptus, Mosi-Guard, Pyramid Trek Natural Citriodiol Spray, Incognito and Ben’s Natural.
How does it work and on what kind of insects?
Although not completely understood, oil of eucalyptus is thought to work by blocking the insects’ olfactory receptors from a compound contained in human breath and sweat, so making us invisible to them and therefore disrupting their landing. It works best on those bugs who actively seek us out in order to feed, like mosquitoes, midges, sand flies, biting flies and fleas and to a lesser extent ticks. It doesn’t deter spiders and stinging insects like bees, wasps and hornets.
Citriodiol has been given the classification of 4 in the Toxic Category (4 being the lowest) for dermal, oral and skin irritation but a classification of 2 for eye irritation. (Generally very safe but keep away from the eyes). Please ask the advice of your doctor or healthcare professional if intending to use or travelling if pregnant or with children under the age of 2. Pregnancy and kids (under 2) safe formulas include Plant Therapy Shield Me, All Terrain Kids Herbal Armour and Mosquito Guard Repellent Spray.
Pyrethrin is a natural insecticide sourced from Chrysanthemum. Pyrethrin affects the nervous system of bugs causing paralysis and death. It is toxic to all insects. Other animals affected by it are cats and fish so do not spray when cats are present and do not dispose of in water. Pyrethrin is the active ingredient in mosquito coils and EcoGuard Fabric Spray. Again exercise caution if pregnant and for children under the age of 2.
Taking the itch out of bug bites and stings
The itchiness experienced after a bug bite or sting originates from our bodies own defence mechanism as the immune system releases histamine and sends it scurrying to the site to provide a reaction against the unrecognised bug saliva or poison. This causes redness, heat, swelling and tenderness to radiate around the area, causing itchiness and pain. If you don’t suffer an allergic reaction* then these natural remedies will help to take the sting out.
Take antihistamines – nettle has anti-histamine and blood purifying properties. You can infuse and drink as a tea or add some into a cold compress with ice and apply directly to the area. Both the ice and nettle will help to stop the itch. If you lack nettle apply an ice pack over the area for 10 minutes on then 10 minutes off to take the heat out. (Do not drink nettle if pregnant).
Applying aloe vera to the area helps to soothe and reduce itchiness. Placing the aloe into the fridge provides a cooling effect. It has antiseptic and healing properties that assist the healing process.
The bioflavonoid quercetin can be used as a supplement for its anti-histamine effect. Studies have shown it exerts a dual anti-allergy action – both inhibiting the release of histamine from basophil cells and if histamine is already present, reducing skin redness and itching. By exerting an anti-inflammatory effect, it also protects the skin from damage associated from allergies and UV rays so it’s great for sunburn too (it has been shown to help to restore skin barrier function, increasing hydration and reducing water loss). Its anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties enable it to scavenge free radicals reducing the oxidative damage caused by UV radiation by inhibiting the production of inflammatory mediators. Safe for children – give them half the recommended dose for an adult. (Quercetin is not safe to take in pregnancy). Foods that naturally contain quercetin are onions, garlic, apples and cayenne pepper (1).
Placing a camomile teabag or bathing the area in water that has been allowed to infuse with camomile for 10 minutes will help to reduce itchiness. Camomile is also great for swollen and itchy eyes where it can be infused in water and used with cotton wool as an eye bath (do not use if you have a ragweed allergy).
A dilution of lavender essential oil applied to the site will help to reduce redness and inflammation and promote healing. Dilute in an oil carrier (olive or coconut oil). Safe to use in pregnancy.
Your natural holiday shopping list
Nettle or/and camomile tea bags
Chemical free aloe vera gel
Lavender essential oil
Oil of lemon eucalyptus essential oils or prepared oil of lemon insect repellents or formulas
*Serious allergic reactions (called anaphylaxis) to watch for and which require immediate medical attention are:
Loss of consciousness
1) Giada Maramaldi,1 Stefano Togni,1 Ivan Pagin et al. Soothing and anti-itch effect of quercetin phytosome in human subjects: a single-blind study. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2016; 9: 55–62. Published online 2016 Feb 26. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S98890.
2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4777224/ PMID: 27013898
6) Gryboski, J., D. Weinstein and N.K. Ordway. 1961. Toxic encephalopathy apparently related to the use of an insect repellant. N. Engl. J. Med., 264:289- 291