I Need...Bug Spray

>> Thursday, July 23, 2009

It's a typical summer evening. You've settled into your usual spot on the porch swing, swaying gently in rhythm to the chirping of the crickets. The kids are laughing as they chase fireflies across the lawn, and a cool breeze carries the charcoal-laced scent of your neighbor's barbecue into your yard. The evening is perfect.

Except - swat! - for those dang - slap! - mosquitoes!!!

At the first sighting of those pesky insects, you probably reached for the bug spray. But if you have children, you might want to pause and reconsider.

The main questionable ingredient in commercial insect repellents is DEET, a pesticide that has been associated with headaches, insomnia, disorientation, and mood swings. As with any toxic chemical, the risk of side effects increases in children and with overuse. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics states that DEET is safe to use in children over two months old, you should still take proper precautions when using bug spray. Plus, there are enough alternative options that you might decide to avoid DEET completely.


  • Use clothing as a barrier. If you know you're going to be in an area where ticks and other pesky insects are going to be a problem, wear a hat and long pants, and tuck your pants into your socks. There also seems to be some evidence that mosquitoes are more attracted to darker clothing.
  • Do the daily tick check - especially if you've been playing in a grassy or wooded area or have pets.
  • Avoid places and times when bugs are worst. Ticks hang out in grass, trees, and shrubs. Mosquitoes like stagnant water and are most prevalent at dusk. The peak season for blackflies is spring and early summer.
  • Avoid applying bug spray to your children's hands since they are very likely to put their hands in their mouths. Also avoid applying DEET around food.
  • Choose a product that contains a lower percentage of DEET. According to Healthy Child, Healthy World, concentrations below 10 percent are best for children.
  • Avoid applying DEET more than once a day and apply sparingly. Reapplying too frequently can lead to overexposure. Also consider using a lotion instead of a spray to avoid inhaling the repellent.
  • Try a DEET-free insect repellent. These alternative products generally rely on essential oils to repel pests and can be found at natural foods stores. The downside seems to be that they don't last as long, but persistent reapplication may be worth the trouble if it means avoiding a toxic chemical.
  • Light a citronella candle. Citronella, which is the essential oil of lemon balm, has been proven to repel mosquitoes.
  • Make your own insect repellent with this recipe from Care2 using essential oils and vegetable oil. The most common essential oil to repel mosquitoes is citronella (lemon balm). My mom grows lemon balm in her herb garden and has even experimented with rubbing the leaves directly onto her skin. The jury's out on whether or not this works.
  • Use a few drops of a repellent essential oil in the rinse water of your laundry.
  • Put a drop of a repellent essential oil once a week on your pets' collars. More than that can irritate your pets.
  • Chose plants for your yard that have bug repellent properties such as lemon balm and lavendar.

Tips for the Budget-Conscious

If you're looking for a more natural insect repellent, making your own is probably the cheapest strategy. If you choose to use a product containing DEET for budget reasons, be sure to use proper precautions: use sparingly, avoid applying on hands, avoid cuts and open wounds, and keep away from food.

Where I'm At

I've been buying a product from Whole Foods called Buzz Away. It works fine (and I like that it comes in a metal container rather than plastic), but it has to be reapplied every two hours or so. I've thought about trying to make my own, but so far, laziness has won the battle with frugality.

Photo by tanakawho

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Maren Hansen July 24, 2009 at 7:29 PM  

I am allergic to all bug sprays, organic, chemical free, etc. AND, I'm very allergic to mosquito saliva (big surprise, I know). So my solution is the mosquito netting clothing you can buy. Granted it's pretty warm to wear in the summer, but it repels ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, etc. And I don't get hives! Now I need to find some for my youngest who is also allergic to bug sprays. And the mosquitoes on the east coast are something to be reckoned with: the ubiquitous Asian Tiger Mosquito...

Erin aka Conscious Shopper July 24, 2009 at 8:37 PM  

@Maren - I remember seeing a picture of your mosquito suit on your blog. Sexy! :) But if it works, I'm sure it's worth it!

Jennifer August 5, 2009 at 4:10 PM  

Hi Erin! (I discovered you over at the Green Phone Booth and followed you here...)

Speaking of bug sprays, do you know anything about this "new" ingredient called Picaridin that's popping up in the mainstream repellents all over the place now? (The FDA insists its safe...but the FDA also says DEET is safe, so...:-X) I did a post about it on my own blog, but with more questions than answers (http://greenmomintheburbs.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/insect-repellent-whats-picaridin/)...the Green Teams don't seem to be jumping on it yet.

I'll check out that DIY link you had--I've made a lot of sprays myself out of lemon eucalyptus and other oils (Actually, I believe lemon balm, or melissa officinalis, is a slightly different plant from citronella...and lemon balm's essential oil is frightfully expensive.), or a readymade blend from naturesgift.com called "skeeterbeater"--sometimes mixed with a little neem oil...it works for us!

Thanks for all you do!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper August 5, 2009 at 9:53 PM  

@Jennifer - Glad to see you over here! I hadn't heard of Picaridin, but it doesn't seem like there's much information about how safe it is. I'd say, if you avoid DEET (like me), you probably want to stay away from this picaridin stuff until it gets more testing.

Thanks for the clarification about lemon balm/citronella. I had read in Better Basics for the Home (an awesome book) that they are the same, but Google and Wikipedia agree with you. :)

Love your blog, by the way!

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