I love living in Maine, especially when the weather turns nice and I can enjoy all the natural beauty the state has to offer. I love walking barefoot on the beach in warm sand, camping in State Parks and connecting with nature while hiking through peaceful forests. But like most people, I don’t love mosquitos buzzing around, being pestered by black flies, or worrying about disease carried by ticks and other insects.
That’s something I’ve been hearing from patients a lot lately; they are so afraid of the potential for getting Lyme disease that they are choosing to just stay out of the woods altogether. I urge you not to let fear keep you inside — it’s so important to your health to spend time in the great outdoors. It’s all about finding balance, and finding ways to protect yourself so you can keep that fear – and the bugs – at bay.
I won’t give up going outside. I have acres of property to enjoy, and I love the peace of mind nature brings to me. Of course I want insects to keep their distance so I won’t be bitten. But it’s also important to me that I use natural insect repellent instead of conventional insect repellents that contain DEET and other chemicals I don’t want my body to absorb. Let’s take a quick look at what’s in many of the commercial repellents on the market, then I’ll give you some natural alternatives to consider.
The Dangers of DEET
You’ve probably heard a lot about DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) and the potential health issues it can cause. This information can be scary if you don’t know any alternatives. But I will give you the information you need, I promise. Just let me tell you a little about why it’s important to use DEET sparingly.
Originally developed and patented by the US Army in 1946, Deet is an insect repellent registered for direct application to human skin, clothing, pets, tents, bedrolls and screens. DEET is different than many pesticides because it is applied directly to skin in order to repel pests. In 1957, Deet was registered for use by the general public because of its effectiveness in warding off mosquitoes and biting flies.
But we’ve learned a lot in the last six decades, and I have grave concerns over the frequent use of any chemical directly on my skin. And although the Environmental Protection Agency considers DEET safe for use as directed, I simply can’t ignore information from both animal and human studies that show adverse effects, including neurotoxicity, to exposure. DEET is absorbed into your skin and dispersed to all organs, including your brain.
That doesn’t mean I would recommend never using DEET at all, however. You have to weigh the risks against the benefits. Lyme disease is a real threat, especially here in Maine, so if you are headed deep into the woods, you have to protect yourself. There are times – such as in a highly infested area or where disease is prevalent – when DEET might be the best choice. But it shouldn’t be your default choice. Common sense tells me that if we can avoid using an unnatural chemical on our body, and instead find natural insect repellent, we should.
Other Active Ingredients of Concern
While DEET is the chemical you hear about most often, there are other chemicals that insect repellents contain that have been shown to pose health risks as well. Cyfluthrin, for example, resembles DDT structurally, and works in a similar fashion. Cyfluthrin accumulates in fatty tissues, and has been linked to neurotoxicity. Studies also show that cyfluthrin has an effect on blood, liver function, and behavior after exposure in the womb.
Permethrin is a synthetic pesticide. The most common use of permethrin is in treating netting, bug resistant clothing, and outdoor gear. However, it’s also used in insect repellents applied directly to skin. Permethrin has also been linked to neurotoxicity.
There are over 1,000 insecticides in the class of bug repellent chemicals called pyrethroids. These chemicals can become toxic to the central nervous system. Many have also been linked to disruption of the endocrine system, and some have been classified as possible carcinogens.
Are you getting freaked out, wondering what you’ve been putting on your skin? Just like when we use cosmetics, lotions, and other skin care products it’s really important to know the ingredients in your bug spray!
Before you use any product, it’s important to remember that some people are far more sensitive to chemicals than others. I suggest trying a product on a small spot of skin to check for reaction before spraying it liberally over your skin. And remember, even if you have no visible reaction, these chemicals can be absorbed through your skin and cause health issues that can be easily avoided by using natural remedies instead.
Avoiding Disease Transmitted By Insects
Beyond the annoyance factor, fear of disease is a real – and valid – concern. A report released by the CDC in May 2018 stated that annual reports of tick borne diseases, most notably Lyme disease (82% of reports) more than doubled between 2004 and 2016. And the occurrence of diseases carried by mosquitoes was marked by virus epidemics. Clearly, then, disease carried by blood-sucking insects and ticks is a growing issue.
All of that information about chemicals and the statistics on disease rates growing might leave you terrified, but it shouldn’t. Having the right information is crucial to making the best choices for yourself.
Finding ways to avoid being bitten by ticks and insects potentially carrying disease is critical. But you shouldn’t have to stay indoors all the time, and you shouldn’t have to expose yourself to chemicals that can cause health problems as serious as the diseases you’re trying to avoid. It may seem like a no-win situation, but there are other options. Let’s take a look at some natural insect repellent that’s easy to try right now!
Natural Insect Repellent – 5 Ways to Protect Yourself Naturally
Bug bites are certainly no fun, but there are several ways to protect yourself without spraying toxins directly on your skin. Some may require a little research on your part, and you might have to experiment a bit before you find what’s right for you. But I think the time and effort it takes to find more natural insect repellent is well worth it!
1. Cover Up
One of the most effective ways to avoid insect bites is to cover exposed skin. This can be especially important when you are hiking in deep woods or walking through tall grass. Look for lightweight pants and long-sleeved shirts that allow you to stay cool while keeping vulnerable skin covered.
2. Treat Your Clothing, Not Your Skin
Although non-toxic natural repellents are my top choice, if you’re going deep into the woods you might decide you need something stronger. If that’s the case, consider spraying your clothing or wearing gear already treated with permethrin. While not ideal, it’s better than applying chemicals directly to your skin, where they might be more easily absorbed. Remember to wash these clothes separately from the rest of your laundry to avoid contamination.
3. Change Your Environment
Standing water in your yard is likely to attract more bugs, so keep that kiddie pool empty when not in use, fill lingering puddles with dirt, and pay attention to any other sources of standing water that you can control. Also, insects have a tough time in wind, so if you’re trying to enjoy an evening on the porch, consider running a window or overhead fan to keep mosquitos away.
4. Mix Up Your Own Natural Repellent
There are plenty of great recipes to be found online that use all natural ingredients you might even already have – like coconut oil (this stuff really is multi-purpose!) and essential oils. Natural ingredients that help keep ticks at bay include garlic pills, neem oil and tea tree oil. Another popular remedy is to mix up apple cider vinegar, water and essential oils.
5. Purchase Natural Products
There are commercial products that don’t contain DEET or other toxic chemicals – but you’ll need to read labels carefully. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends oil from the lemon eucalyptus tree as an alternative to DEET. A study in New Mexico found that of all repellents tested, only DEET and oil of eucalyptus were effective in repelling mosquitoes. There is some evidence that it works on ticks, too. But a word of caution – if ingested in high quantities, this oil may be poisonous, and the CDC doesn’t recommend using it on children under 3.
Soy-based products have also been found to be an effective natural mosquito repellent. A 2002 study found that a soy-based product was the most effective natural alternative to DEET.
Citronella has long been used as a natural alternative for keeping bugs away, and citronella candles are a staple for many campers.
Don’t Forget the Tick Checks
I have one final bit of advice. You won’t always be able to keep bugs – especially ticks – off your body. But awareness goes a long way! Be sure to do a tick check anytime you – or your animals – come out of the woods (or any areas with heavy vegetation).
Often, ticks will find small hidden areas to burrow into – so you have to do more than a cursory check. If you have long hair, comb it out and be sure to feel your skull to make sure they aren’t hiding underneath thick layers. Check your armpits, behind your knees, behind your ears, under your breasts, and even in more sensitive genital areas. It may take a few minutes, but it’s time well spent if you can evict an unwanted guest before they attach themselves to you.
Keeping the Bugs at Bay Will Help You Enjoy the Great Outdoors
There are so many great reasons to be outside. The natural world can give you a mental boost, the sun helps your body make Vitamin D, and it simply feels good to leave the to-do lists and electronics behind and connect with Mother Nature. With the above ideas for natural insect repellent, you can do that free of worry about what pests – or the common chemicals used to keep them away – will do to your health. Happy hiking!