Summer is finally here, and along with delicious sun-drenched days and romantic balmy nights come those pesky little mosquitoes that buzz in your ears and leave little red bumps that make you scratch ‘til you bleed.
But these days mosquitoes are more than just an itchy summer nuisance: they can carry zika virus, malaria, West Nile virus, dengue fever and encephalitis - illnesses that cause serious health issues and may even result in death. That’s why it is so important to take precautions against getting bitten. An ounce of prevention and all that...
Most of the effective commercial insect repellents currently on the market contain one of two chemicals: DEET or picaridin (a synthetic compound first made in the 1980s). Developed by the U.S. Army in 1946, DEET was given the green light for use by the general public in 1957. The EPA has long insisted that both these ingredients are safe for adults and children when used according to directions. However, a Duke University study done in 2002 concluded otherwise, showing that these ingredients can potentially damage brain cells, cause adverse behavioral changes, and interact badly with certain medications. More serious effects like brain cell toxicity and death were observed in animals exposed to DEET with greater frequency and longer-term use, suggesting that the general public should think twice before using it with any regularity.
The skin is the largest organ in the human body, covering a surface area of 16-22 sq. ft. and averaging somewhere between 0.5 to 4.0 mm in thickness depending upon its location. The outermost layer of the skin, the stratum corneum, keeps external toxins from penetrating the skin and gaining access to internal organs. However, not all toxins can be repelled by the body, and the introduction of nanoparticles in manufacturing (those molecules smaller than 40 nm in diameter) has been a game changer, allowing a variety of chemical preparations to find their way past natural barriers and directly into the bloodstream.
Research shows that approximately 15 percent of DEET is absorbed through the skin. Insect repellent manufacturers openly acknowledge that the toxic effects of diethyl-meta-toluaminde (DEET) include: reproductive disturbances, genetic material mutations, and central nervous system disorders. The Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University discovered way back in 1997 that, "Everglades National Park employees having extensive DEET exposure were more likely to have insomnia, mood disturbances and impaired cognitive function than were lesser exposed co-workers".
Feeling like you are caught between a rock and a hard place? No worries: natural alternatives to these synthetic chemicals do exist, and have been proven to be equally effective without posing long or short-term danger to your health. In fact, The U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a statement in May 2008 equally recommending DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus (no kidding!) and IR3535 (an insect repellent developed by Merck) for protection against mosquitoes after a study published in 2006 found that a product containing 40% oil of lemon eucalyptus was just as effective as products containing high concentrations of DEET.
Some of the natural oils that repel mosquitoes are:
- Nepetalactone, also known as "catnip oil"
- Citronella oil (requires reapplication after 30 to 60 minutes)
- Neem oil (has both repellent and insecticidal properties and repels mosquitoes for up to 12 hours)
- Bog Myrtle from Scotland also known as sweet gale
- Essential oil of Eucalyptus (citriodora, globulus and radiata)
- Essential oil of Basil
- Essential oil of Geranium
- Essential oil of Thyme
- Essential oil of Blue Cypress
- Essential oil of Peppermint
While these oils are extremely effective, please remember that natural remedies do require more frequent application than synthetic preparations containing DEET, and should be applied every one to two hours, depending upon a number of factors that include whether or not you are wearing sunscreen, how heavily you are sweating (and thereby diluting the repellent), whether you’ve been swimming, and how quickly the oils are evaporating on your body (when exposed to high winds and temperatures).
It is actually very easy to make your own mosquito repellent. All you need is:
- A small spray bottle that holds about 4 oz. (120 ml)
- Your choice of 4-5 essential oils (combinations tend to be more effective than single oils)
- A carrier (non-essential) oil for dilution like jojoba, almond or any vegetable oil
- Aloe Vera gel (optional)
Add 30-40 drops total of a combination of the aforementioned essential oils, to about 3 oz. of water. Do not exceed 40 drops of essential oils.
My favorite combination includes geranium, basil, thyme, eucalyptus and peppermint. I also like to add 1 tablespoon of aloe vera gel, 1 tablespoon of jojoba oil, and 1 teaspoon of neem oil, so I reduce the total amount of water to about 2.5 oz. to allow for these additional ingredients.
Shake well to combine the ingredients and apply to the body.
2 Notes of caution:
- Be sure to check for skin sensitivity before applying these oils. Just because an essential oil recipe is all-natural does not mean that a person can’t be sensitive to plant oils.
- Do not use citrus oils directly on the skin if you plan on being in direct sunlight, as they can cause photosensitivity (increased likelihood of sunburn). They can however, be safely used to spray on clothing during the day or night.
Using an insect repellent made from natural ingredients is a little extra work, but a small price to pay in the long run. What a perfect way to celebrate World Environment Day and take a significant step toward protecting our health and our fragile environment!
Copyright 2017 by Sharon Gnatt Epel for La Ishá High-Performance Natural Skin Care