Natural Bug Repellents
You don't need
poisons to deal with bugs.
Start by making yourself an unappealing target.
Making human flesh unappetizing to mosquitoes,
ticks, flies, and fleas is an age-old preoccupation. The
earliest insect repellents included smoke, mud, and various plant
substances. Our contemporary contribution is DEET (N,
N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), a powerful insecticide found in over 400
repellents. DEET can peel paint, damage rayon and spandex, and
melt plastic. Up to 56 percent of DEET applied to the skin
enters the bloodstream, and reactions to it include skin rashes,
lethargy, muscle spasms, nausea, and irritability. An extreme
reaction can cause seizures and even death. So it's hardly
worth using DEET to deter insects unless you're someplace with high
rates of insect-borne disease or you experience severe allergic
reactions to bites and stings.
There are natural alternatives to DEET, made
primarily from plant essential oils, that can protect you in less
threatening circumstances. Although "there is no natural
repellent as effective as DEET," says Eve McClure, executive
vice-president of Quantum, a natural repellent manufacturer in
Eugene, Oregon, "natural repellents do help ward off mosquitoes,
black flies, gnats, and fleas, and they may provide some protection
Ticks, the carriers of Lyme disease, are among the
most worrisome pests. If you are traveling in an area known
for Lyme disease (according to the Centers for Disease Control, this
includes the Atlantic states and Northern California), contact the
American Lyme Disease Foundation at (800) 876-5963 for preventive
Reactions: From Mild to Fatal
Although most people experience only temporary pain
and swelling after a bee or wasp sting, some individuals are
hypersensitive and can experience a potentially fatal anaphylactic
reaction. The symptoms of anaphylaxis include hives,
agitation, difficulty in breathing, nausea, dizziness, and a swollen
tongue or face. Without prompt medical treatment, this can be
fatal. Although anyone can have an anaphylactic reaction, the
people most at risk are those with a history of allergic reactions
to stings -- hives, wheezing, or a previous episode of anaphylactic
People who know they are at risk should carry an
emergency kit with injectable epinephrine, which is available by
prescription. Home care can include drinking slightly salty
water(1/2 tsp. per quart, at 4 oz. per hour), Vitamin B-5 at large
doses briefly (2 grams 3X a day, for 3-4 days), Licorice capsules or
tea at 1-2 cps./1 cup tea, 2 or 3 X a day.
You don't have to be in the tropics or in an area at
high risk for insect-borne disease to take the following steps.
Hordes of insects your own backyard can lead you to seek extra
protection. Debra Nuzzi-St. Claire, an herbalist in Boulder,
Colorado, has these suggestions (see "Making Your Own Natural Insect
Repellent," below, for essential oil combination):
Spray clothing and bedding (including the mosquito
netting of your tent, if you're camping) with an alcohol-base
Pour several drops of the combined pure essential
oils onto a candle.
Place a few drops on cloth or paper strips and
hang them around the room, especially by doors and windows.
Add the base oil to shampoos and liquid soaps.
Most natural insect repellents are made with an
essential oil distilled from citronella, a tall, aromatic grass
indigenous to Southern Asia. Its pungent, lemony fragrance is
pleasant to most people but objectionable to mosquitoes. Other
aromatic essential oils commonly found in natural insect repellents
include cedarwood, lemongrass, eucalyptus, peppermint, pennyroyal,
lavender, and bergamot.
These are safe when applied to the skin, but should
not be taken internally without the advice of a professional.
Pennyroyal, in particular, is highly toxic if ingested.
Essential oil repellents are available in spray or
oil form. According to Eve McClure, restrictions by the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have made it difficult for
consumers to identify natural repellents by packaging alone.
Since the EPA classifies all repellents as insecticides, it requires
expensive testing, which includes experiments on live animals.
Because most natural repellent manufacturers are unwilling -- or
financially unable -- to comply with EPA guidelines, they cannot
promote their products as natural insect repellents. "We had
to remove the bug from our label and change our name from 'Buzz
Away' to 'Zzz Away,' " says McClure (see "Making Your Own Natural
After the Bite
If mosquitoes, flies, and fleas feast on you in
spite of your efforts, Nuzzi-St. Claire recommends applying
undiluted tea tree oil to the bites. Tea tree oil has
antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties and is usually
non-irritating. Test a small area of skin before applying the
oil liberally. If the essential oil irritates your skin, wash
it off with soap and water and dilute the tea tree oil in five parts
of jojoba or almond oil before reapplying. Testing for
sensitivity is a good practice when applying any essential oil for
the first time.
Sharol Tilgner, a naturopathic physician and natural
first-aid expert in Portland, Oregon, recommends applying a drop of
peppermint essential oil to insect bites. "Anything with
menthol will increase the circulation in the area and dissipate the
anticoagulant that the mosquito has injected into you," she says.
Other topical treatments for reducing itching and inflammation
include cold compresses, lavender essential oil, and calamine
lotion. Dr. Thomas S. Lee, an Arizona naturopathic physician,
likes pure lavender oil rubbed into the bite ASAP. "The
Chinese patent medicine White Flower Oil is a clean mentholated
formula that works well, too."
Well-equipped and well-informed, you can take those
restorative strolls and hikes with greater confidence. Carl
Mitchell of the Centers for Disease Control in Fort Collins,
Colorado says, "People definitely shouldn't avoid outdoor activities
for fear of bug bites and stings. Just take a few
Stings: The Finer Points
Although bees, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets
generally won't go out of their way to attack, they can be extremely
aggressive if you disturb their nests or bother them while they're
feeding. They're attracted by perfumes and scented bodycare
products, as well as by sweet foods such as ice cream, fruit juices,
and watermelon. Bright-colored clothing can also make you a
If you do get stung, the following tips can help
minimize the problems:
Bumblebees, wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets can
attack repeatedly, so if you get stung, get out of the area
immediately. If you're stung by a yellow jacket, avoid
swatting at it. Crushing the venom sac releases a chemical
that incites its nest-mates to attack. Honeybees can sting
only once, but the stinger and venom sac they leave in your skin
pump venom for two to three minutes. Remove them immediately,
being careful not to squeeze the venom sac. The safest way to
do this is to scrape them out with a credit card or the dull edge of
a knife. If the stinger remains behind after you've scraped
away the venom sac, remove it gently with tweezers.
Making Your Own Natural Insect Repellent
Herbalist Debra Nuzzi-St. Claire suggests combining
the following essential oils to make a natural insect repellent:
1/2 ounce citronella oil
1/4 ounce lavender oil
1/8 ounce pennyroyal oil
1/8 ounce tea tree oil
1/8 ounce jojoba oil
Do not use this blend undiluted on your skin.
Follow these instructions for diluting:
To make an insect repellent oil that can be used on
your body, add 16 ounces of jojoba or almond oil to the base oil
mixture and blend thoroughly. For an insect repellent spray,
add 16 ounces of vodka to the base oil mixture, pour into a spray
bottle, and shake before using.
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