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. Garlic supplementation is supposed to work against ticks, so much so that the Swedish defense hands them out to soldiers, because borreliosis used to be a huge problem after field maneuvers.

    Ulla Lauridsen wrote on June 16th, 2011
  2. What repels mosquitos may nor repel flies and vice versa.

    While traveling through Africa my wife and I mixed Eucalyptus Oil in baby oil (stuff you put *on* babies, not made *from* babies) and gave it a good shake before dabbing on our skins. Did the same with Citronella Oil and both worked fine. I can’t smell citronella without thinking of camping in Africa.

    Here in Arabia we have a tree called a Neem (grows across asia too) which is a good repellent and insecticide.

    Craig wrote on June 16th, 2011
  3. All herbal repellents I’ve tried are a waste of money. This includes extra-super-double strength citronella.

    They definitely make the bugs less likely to choose you if others in your group haven’t put on any repellent…but it doesn’t stop them from finally deciding “Smells kind of nasty, but I’m hungry” and eating you alive.

    This isn’t saying someone won’t someday find a herbal repellent that does work. All I’m saying is that the usual suspects (citronella, eucalyptus) don’t.

    My recommendation: you can buy mosquito netting that goes under a hat and over your head and neck. It’s your best bet if you don’t want to use DEET.


    J. Stanton wrote on June 16th, 2011
  4. Use Vicks for gnats (on a hat),and eat garlic for mosquitoes!

    Dave wrote on June 16th, 2011
  5. We’re up here in Dover Foxcroft , dead center of Maine , and the black flies were horrendous this year .
    I had some Cabela’s gift cards to use up , so I ordered two Thermacells. They arrived yesterday . The wife and I are eager to try them out today in the garden and yard.

    Brion wrote on June 16th, 2011
  6. I have one child that seems to be extra tasty to “horseflies” and she is terrified of them at the beach. I found a “bug zapper” thing, it looks like a tennis racket, push a button and swing at the fly/bug. ZAP! Effective and wicked fun! $5 bucks at Ocean State Job Lot. We use it in the restaurant I work at, too, for the fruit flies!

    juliemama wrote on June 16th, 2011
  7. Don’t use soap. Simple, effective.

    I’m NOT saying, “don’t shower, don’t use a washcloth, don’t wash your hands before you eat or after going to the bathroom” (you should do these things) but the world uses way too much soap on their skin on a daily basis. The natural oils our skin produce are very effective at keeping bugs away. In two weeks of no soap use in the shower or in hair, its amazing how much smoother, and healthier the skin and hair really is.

    No smell if you actually eat Primal.

    George Mounce wrote on June 16th, 2011
  8. When I worked in a Bath & Body in college, they promoted the juniper breeze as a natural bug repellant. I don’t know how “natural” B&B products are, but people who tried it were swore by it.

    musajen wrote on June 16th, 2011
  9. I actually heard that dryer sheets work, just keep one in your pocket. I have only tried it once but don’t remember getting bit, was out watching a nighttime softball game. I will keep trying that until I learn that it doesn’t work because then I don’t have to put anything on my body. Supposedly they don’t like the smell.

    Amanda B wrote on June 16th, 2011
  10. I used a DEET product and felt sick for days — I think the stuff should be illegal. Avon’s bug spray worked well for me, and there DOES seem to be at least some clinical support for a number of their products:

    IR3535 (in the Avon product) is similar to beta-alanine. I wonder if supplementing with beta-alanine would provide any mosquito protection.

    JD Moyer wrote on June 16th, 2011
  11. I am pale,celiac and have been bugs preferred food of choice as long as I can remember.I have crazy sensitive skin so I suffered the after effects of being dinner over the chemical irritation.There’s an all natural soap maker in Austin. South Austin People (So.A.P.) and they make soap with natural vegetable oils and essential herbs.they make a dog soap that is the best soap ever. It has tea tree,eucalyptus, and neem oil in it. I never get a single bug bite! I’ve read neem oil also kills and repelles lice for those of you with kids. Id be willing to bet a homemade blend of some almond or coconut oil and teatree and neem oil would do the trick. Effective.natural.

    christal m wrote on June 16th, 2011
  12. The main ingredient in the alternative bug spray I use for the kids is coconut oil with geranium essential oil being second in line. When I run out of this stuff, I’m going to try mixing up a batch of my own. If nothing else, the coconut oil will certainly be nice on the skin. On the other hand, if we’re going to a particularly buggy place, I do use the DEET because the mosquitoes around here can carry the LaCrosse virus.

    karyn wrote on June 16th, 2011
  13. years in the jungles of Central America ….1 gram of Vitamin B-1 morning and evening…until saturated….used mostly there along time ago for hangovers…added bonus bug repellant and nerve damage….I’d go deep into the jungle others were eaten alive…but not a bite on me….just remembering to take it….protection against malaria and dengue so don’t make lite of it……dangerous diseases and now mosquitos have been discovered carrying lyme borrelia

    Lawrenz wrote on June 16th, 2011
  14. SO, what about our pets?? I saw a couple suggestions for dogs. I remember my dad making collars for his dogs out of eucalyptus caps to repel fleas (I can’t remember if it worked all that great). I also remember we used to put vinegar in our horses’ drinking water as I had heard that would help keep flies away. But I never knew how much I was supposed to add.
    I currently live at 9000ft so I have limited insect trouble & no fleas for the dog, but will file this all in the memory banks! good stuff.
    Still would be interested if anyone has any info/luck on stuff for their dogs &/or horses…

    peggy wrote on June 16th, 2011
    • Peggy, my BIL uses watered down Listerine, sprayed on the dogs coats, he swears by it. Hope this helps

      Debbie wrote on June 21st, 2011
  15. if you are near electicity, plug in a house fan. mosquitos can not navigate the wind very well. combine with a typical repellant on you body and you will have a pretty good bug barrier.

    r hidding wrote on June 16th, 2011
  16. Interesting fact: When I was in peru and we were visiting with natives in the jungle there, they showed us how they repel mosquitos: Termites.

    The let the termites crawl onto their skin and hands and then mash them up and rub it all over as it if were lotion. It smells like bug spray. Not as gross as it sounds. Very cool to see.

    Michael Hodnett wrote on June 16th, 2011
  17. Always a ‘buzzing’ topic (sorry for the pun…)
    I went on a world trip a few yers back and took 100% DEET product –> crazy I know but I was very worried about the bugs in various regions.
    Anyway after seeing the effect of this DEET spray when accidentally sprayed onto a window sill (the wood started cracking shortly after), I thought what is this stuff doing to my skin! That was the end of DEET for me.

    Luke M-Davies wrote on June 16th, 2011
  18. Eating more garlic helps.

    Amira wrote on June 16th, 2011
  19. I live in Maine, the black flies were worse than usual, I still have the welts. I use mouthwash for mosquitos, apparently it masks the exhalations. It only works for about an hour. It didn’t work at all on the black flies and I can’t use the chemical ones, they trigger my asthma. I’ll have to try some of the essential oils.

    bbuddha wrote on June 16th, 2011
  20. In Korea, mosquitos are EVIL! They could defend the DMZ easily. One thing I noticed when I started eating right was they didn’t attack so much at night. When I have my backslides (trying to get out of a prolonged one now), the bugs bite more. Could it be that I have bigger reactions such as welts with worse diet? The lactic acid thing also explains some of it, too.

    Julian wrote on June 16th, 2011
  21. 3 things that will save your life from anything that flies and bites.
    1. 1 part rubbing alcohol
    2. 1 part baby oil
    3. 1 part aqua velvet after shave (to cut the smell of the rubbing alcohol)

    kills anything that lands on you. makes you greasy but no bites!! can’t be any worse for you than deet and works 100X’s better
    mississippi and louisiana native, spent four years in N carolina. it works!

    hunter wrote on June 17th, 2011
  22. Catnip and Neem oil combo works amazing. (and no, you don’t attract meows…)

    You can buy it at health food stores.

    We traveled this year through SE Asia (Thailand and Cambodia) in Mozzie infested areas and whenever we used it – no bites. Mozzie’s wouldn’t come near us.

    Packman wrote on June 17th, 2011
  23. I find that since I eat so well the mosquitos LOVE me – I think it’s because my blood is “good” and so rich, full of good stuff because I eat so well.

    Meagan wrote on June 17th, 2011
  24. Great blog and timely for all of us in the deep South as well. Bugs of every sort try to lay claim to our bodies seemingly throughout the year so this blog was helpful and intriguing.
    Now I’m going to research each suggestion this morning before I spend the next 10 hours in the woods today. I’ll get back to you on effectiveness since I have all summer to be a target tester.

    Walter Rush wrote on June 18th, 2011
  25. Here in VT the black flies have been terrible this season. I always rely on Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus for mosquito and black fly protection, it works really well. The EPA and Center for Disease control recommend Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) as the only plant based active ingredient in repellents to work as well as DEET. If you are interested in finding out more about it check out Cutter, Repel and Coleman all have products that contain OLE and are widely available at stores such as Target, Wal-Mart, sporting good stores, and on-line.

    Alicia wrote on June 18th, 2011
  26. doTerra essential oils makes a concentrated blend specifically for repelling bugs called TerraShield. You can find it here:

    M. wrote on June 18th, 2011
  27. Has anyone used the Bert’s Bees repellent? I want to keep things natural.

    Jamie wrote on June 18th, 2011
  28. Chooks! Backyard chickens will turn your backyard bugs into eggs.

    anotherMark wrote on June 18th, 2011
  29. Lemon eucalyptus oil works great. I used it in the jungle in Thailand in only shorts and a sports bra. No mosquitoes touched me when everyone else was getting bit. I ended up sharing eventually.

    You can buy Repel brand at Target. That is what I’ve been using.

    Nicky wrote on June 19th, 2011
  30. I’ve heard that drinking catnip tea repels bugs. Plus, I bet your cat will love you!

    Bob Weber wrote on June 19th, 2011
  31. Having spent considerable time in the light infantry and living among the critters I found several things. The traditional treatments are all best done on clothing, not skin. They do cause issues and reactions, but malaria, spotted fever, etc. are real issues as well. Have worked with some of the herbals and in combination as stated they can be very effective. They are very short lived comparatively. Diet I would recommend a huge increase in B vitamin intake. It really seems to make you “stink” to the mosquitoes. For ticks, the best and safest we found was to put sulfur powder on our boots and pants. Around camp areas both sulfur powder and lime dust were found to eliminate ticks and chiggers from the area.

    CelticFire69 wrote on June 20th, 2011
  32. If you can find Cactus Juice, it works wonders! I’m not sure where to find it anymore though…

    Ginger wrote on June 20th, 2011
  33. Black flies wicked this year. Don’t know about prevention but eating a couple raw garlic cloves next morning completely eliminated symptoms from multiple bites

    Chris wrote on June 20th, 2011
  34. I love to hike in the river valley here in Northern Alberta and when I do, I stick a dryer sheet in the band of my pants…never get bitten.

    Katrina wrote on June 25th, 2011
  35. If you have open water containers for animals to drink from use a few drops of vegetable oil in it to prevent mosquitoes from depositing their eggs and if the water has mosquito larvae a few drops of vegetable and the larvae will die because they need air to breath….

    I Say wrote on June 26th, 2011
  36. very helpful ideas, i will try it this summer. I always use chemical products to get them out.

    ben wrote on June 26th, 2011
  37. When I was younger, and used to follow a largely vegetarian, high grain/legume diet I used to suffer terribly from insect bites.

    In a room full of 10 people, I’d get bitten 10 times with everyone else unscathed.

    Often the bites would react terribly, resulting in swollen limbs that were incredibly painful.

    Since switching to a Primal diet, I’ve found that I now rarely get bitten, and if I do, I barely notice.

    I’ve theorised it could be down to the increased B12 changing the smell of my blood (less tasty), and the anti-inflammatory effect of cutting out the grains etc?

    Simon Primal wrote on June 27th, 2011

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