Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
15 Jun

The Best Bug Repellent?

There’s an unofficial but infamous season this time of year in New England (my native homeland, for those of you who don’t know). In the weeks roughly between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is a period the locals call black fly season. For those of you unfamiliar with these creatures, there’s no overdramatizing their menace. They’re deceptively minuscule but ubiquitous, and their bites can mutilate. I remember a couple from the Midwest moved to our neighborhood just before the school year. Come spring, they’d heard the many jokes and well-intentioned warnings but scoffed when they first saw the flies themselves. “Those gnats?” they asked incredulously. About a week or so later they were both covered in welts after spending the weekend doing yard work with no protection. The woman’s hairline was chewed to oblivion. (These things tended to get around the neighborhood.) I still think of black fly season after all these years especially when I get questions from readers about bug season in their parts of the country. Increasingly, folks ask about a Primal alternative to chemical bug repellent.

The principle behind bug repellents, of course, is to repel. Whether chemically or naturally-derived, a repellent’s job is to make you as unappealing to bugs as possible. And, yes, some people are more enticing. Mosquitos, for example, target their blood donors (actually it’s the blood proteins they’re after) by their smell in addition to lactic acid (mmm…human sweat) and carbon dioxide output. The respiration part explains why the little ones (and pregnant women) tend to get eaten alive out there while others in your party escape with nary a bite. Using genetically modified insects, researchers have also found that taste plays a part as well as smell for mosquitos.

The two most popular conventional repellents are DEET and picaridin (a.k.a. Bayrepel). The vast majority of what you buy in the store today use these as active ingredients. DEET, the most common repellent in the U.S. has been used since the late 1950s. Picaridin is far newer on the block, introduced in Europe in 1998 and in the U.S. in 2005.

In the U.S., DEET remains the repellent of choice, but there’s plenty of reason to choose otherwise. Transdermal absorption of DEET in studies has ranged from 5-17% in humans, and absorption continues as long as the product remains on the skin. DEET has been linked to some fatalities in children who received multiple and extensive applications. It has also been identified as a neurotoxin, in that it inhibits the activity of cholinesterase, an enzyme of the central nervous system in both insects and mammals. A Duke University pharmacologist found evidence in rat studies that DEET exposure resulted in “diffuse brain cell death” in regions governing “muscle movement, learning, memory and concentration,” poorer performance in physical and cognitive tasks, and “behavioral changes” when used long-term.

Although governmental and medical organizations like the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics offer no conditions in their recommendation of DEET, I’d say the risks are enough to give this Primal mind pause.

Obviously, the more often and higher concentrations you use, the higher the risk. I’d suggest reserving DEET products for limited occasions if alternatives don’t work for you in a given situation. Also, more vulnerable members of the population like children, pregnant women, and those with autoimmune/neurological disorders should avoid using DEET. On a side note, some mosquitos are developing a resistance to DEET, including those associated with yellow fever.

There’s also a repellent called permethrin, which is approved for use on clothes only. Permethrin actually kills as well as repels mosquitos and ticks, which means it’s clearly nothing to fool around with. Be advised that even after your wash your clothes, the insecticide remains. For the average person, there’s probably little if any need for the risk inherent with this strong a product.

Less is known about Picaridin. So far, studies demonstrate low toxicity (PDF), and it appears to be the safest choice among conventional repellents. Check out the fact sheets, but little is published (in this country anyway) regarding ongoing study and safety reports.

According to clinical research, your best bet for minimizing bug bites with naturally derived repellents are those with active ingredients taken from essential oils. Oil of lemon eucalyptus appears to be the most effective, but this can be irritating to the skin of young children, particularly in higher concentrations. In a USDA study (PDF) comparing natural repellents against DEET products, a commercial repellent containing oil of lemon eucalyptus (Repel) was more effective than the low concentration DEET product marketed for children. Geraniol, a compound found in geranium plants, also looks promising as does peppermint oil. Geranium and peppermint oils at 100% concentration offer full protection, but the effect remains for a relatively short amount of time (2 hours and 45 minutes, respectively).

In terms of area as opposed to skin repellency, research has demonstrated that candles containing geraniol offered 81.5% protection within a meter’s distance in an outdoor environment, considerably more than the 35.4% protection offered by traditional citronella candles.

Other studies suggests the American beautyberry plant as another promising option for repelling both mosquito and blacklegged ticks (primary carriers of bacteria responsible for Lyme disease). The plant has been used as a folk remedy for decades. Pine oil apparently contains a compound called isolongifolenone that was more effective than DEET at repelling both mosquitos and two kinds of ticks. The compound has been patented for commercial production.

Some research suggests that natural repellent compounds may work more effectively in conjunction with one another. Formulations that contain multiple natural compounds or contain vanillin, which appears to offer a potentiating impact on other repellents, might be the most potent option. (On a side note, I should mention that Skin So Soft didn’t register as effective in any clinical study. Sorry to disappoint any Avon fans out there.)

The more concentrated the dilution, the longer it will last but the higher the potential for skin irritation. Keep in mind that herbal products need to be applied more often than conventional repellents, particularly the higher concentration products like Deep Woods Off, etc. If you’re going to be out for more than a couple of hours or if you’ll headed to a heavily wooded area, I’d suggest bringing extra applications with you.

Besides essential oils, there are the common sense measures. Clothing – especially densely woven fabrics – offer ample protection. (Hunters know what I mean here. Some of the best outdoor clothing for this purpose is designed for hunters.) Long sleeves and pants, scarves/bandanas, high collared shirts, and socks go a long way. Remember hats being required at summer camp? For me, it’s the hairline and the ankles that get it, and those are the area I either cover or apply oils to. As for the yard, consider candles containing geraniol for repellency.

Finally, there’s the question of diet and natural appeal/repellent. Does a particular diet makes you more or less sweet-smelling to a bug? Some people believe changing their diet makes a difference. With the knowledge that lactic acid attracts mosquitos, many fermented foods (as healthy as they are) would seem probable culprits. (Personally, I’d stick with the fermentation and just take more Primal minded precautions.)

I believe the diet and attraction connection likely has merit, but I haven’t seen conclusive evidence for it yet. I’m all ears for anyone who’s found studies on this one or who’s experienced personal success with it. More than anything, showering before that backyard BBQ might be your best bet by minimizing sweat on your skin. Just skip the cologne.

With that, I’ll turn it over to you, MDA readers. What have you tried and found to be effective? Do you make your own or rely on a particular brand?

To those in New England, the best of summer is yet to come. How was black fly season this year anyway? I remember some being worse than others. To everyone out there regardless of regional pest, thanks for reading, and enjoy your summer.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Elder leave are a trad herbal remedy for bug repellent. Seems to work for some. Marmite is another much loved remedy here.

    Glenn wrote on June 15th, 2011
    • I forgot that you guys across the pond have a couple of varieties of Elder, I’m talking about Sambucus Nigra.

      Glenn wrote on June 15th, 2011
  2. When you’re talking about mosquitos and black flies, the natural stuff tends to repel to a degree.

    However, in the case of deer ticks, I’m not willing to give up on DEET. For the times I’m out in the brush and woods here in Southeast PA, I take no chances. The times I’ve ventured without high concentration DEET or with something sub-par, I’ve come home with a tag-along tick stuck somewhere in my skin. With a record high of Lyme’s on the East Coast, I’d much rather use DEET here and there than risk a debilitating disease.

    Pyrethrin is great to apply to clothing, HOWEVER, for those that have feline pets, DO NOT use pyrethrin in or around them. It’s highly toxic to felines.

    And as always, if you, too, live in tick country, always do a “tick check” when you venture back from being in the woods. Learn how to properly pull out the buggers with tweezers, too.

    Melissa wrote on June 15th, 2011
    • I’m not entirely willing to give up on DEET either. I check with the state health department for West Nile Virus info… I usually get eaten alive by mosquitos and meningitis/encephalitis doesn’t sound like much fun. That’s the kind of infection that would have taken Grok down.

      Little to no WNV? I’ll take my chances with the natural stuff. But if there’s a lot of WNV activity, I use the DEET, nasty as it is.

      jj wrote on June 15th, 2011
  3. Witch hazel mixed with a few drops of tea tree oil.

    Jeannette wrote on June 15th, 2011
  4. have heard a brew made with catnip works really well researched at UF & found to have good results…just watch out for flying

    Milliann wrote on June 15th, 2011
  5. My family has always used stongly brewed chamomile tea applied directly to exposed skin to repel mosquitos. Seems to work pretty well if you remember to reapply periodically. It may work for other flying/biting insects as well.

    DenverD wrote on June 15th, 2011
  6. Maybe it’s an Italian thing, but my family has always used garlic (eaten in mass quantities) as a pre-camping bug repellant. Of course we also used it to cure colds, flu, and pretty much anything else that went wrong. When in doubt, eat garlic.

    anzy wrote on June 15th, 2011
  7. I gotta say, i do not miss the insects in Australia, lol

    Nion wrote on June 15th, 2011
  8. I’ve known tons of people who vouch on their lives that Avon skin so soft lotion and/ or apple cider vineager keeps nasty bugs away!

    Savanah wrote on June 15th, 2011
  9. Having just survived black fly season in Maine, I can tell you the best way to fight them is, cover yourself from head to toe with a turtleneck, long pants, socks a hat and netting over the hat. They are vicious little critters, thankfully they only last a few weeks. Then there’s deer fly season…

    Anne wrote on June 15th, 2011
  10. I am in Florida, and before Primal, I would get eaten alive regularly. Mostly by the “No-See-Ums” or biting midges. I have scars from those things when I was on a grain-heavy diet. I haven’t been out much since switching to primal, but I will be out and about in the woods soon and will let you know how many welts I come back with.

    James Schipper wrote on June 15th, 2011
  11. I’ve a soft spot in my heart for Skin So Soft. When I was about four years old I doused my whole body with an entire bottle of the stuff. Man, it took forever to stop smelling like it.

    Anyway, I like the sound of the stuff that Primal Toad mentioned, it may beat my addiction to SSS. I live in BC, so there are mosquitoes aplenty.

    Robyn wrote on June 15th, 2011
  12. Garlic has never worked for me. I also tried sulfur powder – zilch. Ticks still leaped all over me and mosquitoes commenced feasting. It also made my car smell like sulfur for a month.

    Skin-so-Soft with a bug repellant additive (I don’t recall what) has worked well for mosquitoes. Haven’t tried ticks yet.

    I’ll have to give some oils a try.

    Andrew wrote on June 15th, 2011
  13. Mosquitoes are brutal wear I live. I’ve seen a lot of essential-oil based repellents on the internet the past couple of weeks, but I’m skeptical.

    Any chance of an MDA round-up on the efficacy of natural repellents?

    Anne wrote on June 15th, 2011
  14. I have heard that trials with Skin-So-Soft failed to show it was effective, but when I went to boot camp on Paris Island, S.C., it was the only thing that worked for the sand fleas. The big repellent they issued was worthless. Someone’s mom sent some Skin-So-Soft, and a few days later, everyone was getting their mom to mail them some. I never understood how the trials could say it did not work, I saw it work for everyone that tried it in my platoon. Weird, but I swear by the stuff.

    Steven Herndon wrote on June 15th, 2011
  15. Found a product a few years ago called “Bugband” ( I am in no way associated with this company… just a highly satisfied customer! They are plastic bands you can wear as bracelets, hook on belt loops, etc. They contain geraniol (essential oil derived from geraniums) We have the nasty black flies here in Montana as well… their season seems to be when I need to be on the tractor in the orchard all day! I wear that band and they don’t bother me at all… works for mosquitos also. I buy a new set of them each spring… one for each kid, myself, hubby, and a couple of extras just in case. they come in a plastic pod to store them in (geraniol is volatile) so keep them in their pod in a ziploc when not in use and they will last all season.

    HeidiAnne wrote on June 15th, 2011
  16. Soon after beginning some challenging yard work last weekend, my husband came in to say he was being ‘eaten alive’ by mosquitos and was out of OFF (his preferred repellant). I found some old packets of Buzz Away which he applied liberally. We were both surprised at how well it worked for him because he is a true mosquito magnet while mosquitos bother me very little. I’ve used Buzz Away for years when I thought it prudent — probably got it at the local health food store (we live in downstate Illinois). You can check out a few reviews on Some folks complain of the smell but I agree with those who find it acceptable, maybe pleasant.

    I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s ideas and experiences. One thought on pennyroyal — pregnant women should not use it. Also, I have used nutritional yeast for years and hold the belief this has something to do with why mosquitos and other pests don’t bother me — the B vitamin hypothesis supported!

    Sally wrote on June 15th, 2011
  17. When I was in Africa the locals SWORE that drinking quinine would help to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Not sure if it helped or not, or if it was their way of justifying all those gin and tonics?

    Michele wrote on June 15th, 2011
  18. I remember back in the old days people smeared wood ashes all over their sweaty skin.

    Has anybody tried that? Would probably make an awesome war paint for us Groks :-)

    Primal Palate wrote on June 15th, 2011
  19. We call mosquitoes the state bird in Oregon. They’re vicious and bite right through your nylon, permethrin-treated clothing. It’s no fun hiking in a headnet and bug clothes all day, but it’s about the only way to avoid being bitten. I even made myself bug mitts for this summer.

    hiker wrote on June 15th, 2011
  20. Catnip essential oil rocks. Surprised no one has mentioned it!

    Lauren wrote on June 15th, 2011
  21. We visit family in St.Simon’s Island, GA, which is hot, humid, and buggy. The local bug replellent is a big spray bottle filled with 1/3 original Listerine ( that’s eucalyptus you taste), 2/3 water. Works like a charm.

    Digby wrote on June 15th, 2011
  22. kem wrote on June 15th, 2011
  23. has a great bugspray that is chemical free!!! The sunscreen is amazing as well for other pale friends like me.

    Lynn wrote on June 15th, 2011
    • I second that. Have been using both for 3 or 4 years now.

      Carrie wrote on June 15th, 2011
  24. Garlic, lots and lots of garlic! Seems like the more I eat, the less the bugs bug me. Of course, have to have everyone around abide by the same concept, makes things more civil!

    Ja wrote on June 15th, 2011
  25. Doubt there’s any “proof” except they don’t bite me….GARLIC, lots and lots of GARLIC! It is rumored to repel vampires, too. Maybe the pesky mosquito inspired the tales of those blood suckers.

    Darla wrote on June 15th, 2011
  26. lordy, I remember the crop-dusters spraying malathon over the area when I was growing up (in TX). They’d call, and we’d here them coming, and run inside for a while. Mom also had one of those pump-misters with some chemical in (smelled like coconuts but was lethal I’m sure).

    Now, there is a Vit. B patch called Don’t Bug Me, or Don’t Bite Me that I found for my husband that works GREAT!

    nbongo wrote on June 15th, 2011
  27. Lavender oil (about 5%) in baby oil (I guess coconut would be fine too) works a treat. Knock it back to about 2.5% for little ones. I have used this brew successfully in Northern topical Australia, and on holiday in Fiji. PS the bugs love me, usually, but not enough to come near me when I have lavender slathered on. :)

    Dino Babe wrote on June 15th, 2011
    • Also lavender is anti inflammatory, so relieves the itch and discomfort of existing bites!

      Dino Babe wrote on June 15th, 2011
  28. I’ve always been very suspicious of deet. Ever since my military issue bottle with a loose cap took off the paint from a pencil in my pocket back in the day. And frankly, I don’t think it works very well for bug magnets like me. I just got off the golf course on a humid summer day. Several mosquito bites, a couple of those biting fly bites, and most annoying–gnats following me around like Linus, in my eyes and mouth, totally messing with my swing. If anyone has any ideas about essential oils effective against these buggers I’m all ears.

    kateD wrote on June 15th, 2011
    • DEET is actually a solvent–little surprise and SCARY!

      Jen wrote on June 16th, 2011
  29. I spent a couple weeks in Seward Alaska in 2005. This is a small fishing town and the mosquitos there are TERRIBLE. Bug bits on my face. Thats the worst. My friends mom who lived there had me rub cocoa butter on my lower back, arm pits, back of the neck and on my inner thighs. Then she had me dab soda water over the areas with the cocoa butter. Sounds nuts, but it worked like a charm. Spent all night outside that evening with a camp fire and didn’t get one bite!

    For some reason I haven’t tried it again since, I don’t live in a particularly buggy part of the states. I would be curious to hear if it works for anyone else!

    Keven wrote on June 15th, 2011
    • whoops, i think it was tonic water, not soda water. Because of the quinine in it. Sorry!

      Keven wrote on June 15th, 2011
  30. Last year backpacking we took “Repel Plant Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent” after reading excellent reviews on the web. Stuff was awesome! We didn’t get bit once but our friends using that Avon stuff sure did. lol

    Ailu wrote on June 15th, 2011
  31. I’ve found eaten enough garlic or tabasco sauce (eating them until the smell comes out of my pores) keep ANYTHING from biting me…

    Including my husband, but you know… whatever.

    Coyote Vick wrote on June 15th, 2011
  32. To repel mosquitoes: Up the amount of garlic that you eat (in cooked foods or raw). Eat lots of garlic. Mosquitoes are repelled by the smell seeping through your pores.

    Rhonda wrote on June 15th, 2011
  33. I grew up in an Italian family that worshipped garlic. Mom didn’t know how to cook without it. Not only did the house reek of the stuff (and still does) but the whole family did too. However, it does give off an unpleasant body aroma besides becoming a part of your breath — (when I was a teenager, my folks swore it was the best birth control pill on the planet!! ahem—-)
    That said, even with all that garlic, I’ve always been considered PRIME feeding fodder for bugs/mosquitoes.

    Having spent many a summer backpacking in the Eastern Sierra Nevada in California, I can attest to being very well liked by these critters. The bugs would zero in on me and leave every one else around me alone. I became the bug repellant of choice!

    I wouldn’t even consider hiking without a bug hat/net thingy on my head
    as they just seem to home in on my breath — savoring whatever it is the CO2 I emit is providing them. I really think that we are all different enough that we need to try out various methods/repellants and just find the one that works for us.

    Has anyone noticed that the more we move around/sweat/breathe hard the more we attract them?

    PrimalGrandma wrote on June 15th, 2011
  34. I find that bug bites don’t irritate me quite as much as pre-primal. I still hate it when they go for my neck but there’s no long lasting pain or itch.

    Alex Good wrote on June 15th, 2011
  35. We use the mosquito nets – very effective and clean, with a bit of manual work before you sleep.

    Jayadeep Purushothaman wrote on June 15th, 2011
  36. I’m moving to west Africa in 2 weeks and this has been the question for me. If I can avoid having to take malaria medication, I will! I’ve heard that eating a match head a day will ward off anything that bites. Anyone else have an opinion on sulfur?

    kate wrote on June 15th, 2011
  37. Commenting on sulfur, I used to chew match heads back in ranger school in the deep woods of Georgia. I have no hard proof, as the bugs might have just gone away, but it may have worked. It certainly didn’t hurt, and I know there’s brand name repellant called “chigg away” that’s just sulfur ( but is topical). It’s definitely a cheap option to try!

    Rob wrote on June 16th, 2011
  38. OIl of lavender has always worked well for me and my dogs. It repels biting flies also.

    Jackie wrote on June 16th, 2011
  39. I’ve never really been one to get bitten much – I recall a couple of friends and I went to Spain, one had the nets, the repellant spray, the cream, everything, and he got eaten alive. I slept with the shutters and windows open, no spray and got bitten once, in the first day – clearly I’m not tasty!!

    Found witch hazel works for midges (probably the same thing, but they’re a menace in Scotland) – went on a camping trip as a teenager. I didn’t get bitten, but most other people did. One girl borrowed my witch hazel spot stick then realised after that, she didn’t get bitten on her face again..the local chemist was sold out an hour later 😀

    Bex wrote on June 16th, 2011

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