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. I too use a thermocell when hunting in warmer months, expecially in the river bottoms of East Texas. The only downside is having to replace the pads and fuel, it can get expensive.

    CavemanGreg wrote on June 27th, 2011
  2. The best thing is to make sure that you do not wear cologne or anything with a sweet smell. If you do, you will be drained of a few quarts of blood.

    Joan Cortez wrote on June 28th, 2011
  3. saw this bug balm on an organic site sounds good 100% organic & has all the right essencial oils in it.

    Milliann Johnson wrote on July 3rd, 2011
  4. I read recently catnip is a mosquito repellent due to an oil or different oils in it. Just a couple days ago I was walking on a trail and being harassed by mosquitos and I stopped to pick some catnip to eat and make iced tea with and while picking it only a few mosquitos came near.. I’m not sure if that was luck or a correlation.

    Animanarchy wrote on July 11th, 2011
  5. I can’t believe no one mentioned catnip oil. It is probably more effective against mosquitos than all the rest, see this study:
    I went treeplanting in Northern Ontario 8 years ago, the bugs there are so bad you have to run away from the swarms sometimes. I made a bug spray before going up there and got to compare its effectiveness to full-strength Watson’s cream (strong DEET, 30%?)
    I reckon my natural spray was about 70% as effective, but was non-toxic and pleasant-smelling.
    I used 4 oils: catnip, lemon eucalyptus, cedarwood, and lavender.

    I recommend trying it out.

    Mike wrote on September 6th, 2011
  6. I have a friend who as a teenager never got bitten, and she lived on Oreos and Kraft Singles. I think it has something to do with her Italian chemistry. . . we should take blood samples of such people and develop some kind of nutrient profile!

    Dar wrote on May 11th, 2012
  7. Has anyone besides me used a dryer sheet (Bounce fabric softener)? Just rub yourself down – it actually worked for me!

    Mepr wrote on May 27th, 2013
  8. Years ago I remember reading somewhere that the British royal family uses musk if they venture into the wild. Kind of expensive I would guess though!

    Jon wrote on June 24th, 2013
  9. You need to try the natural bug spray by Mission Essentials is the last one you’ll ever need. It works great, smells great and does not leave your skin feeling oily.
    Check it out @
    It’s called “Fight Back 2”

    Steve wrote on July 23rd, 2013
  10. I use a product called Sweetly Citron I found on Amazon. Works great and is all natural (smells good too)

    Chris wrote on August 3rd, 2013
  11. Many folks have suggested making bat houses to get rid of flies and mosquitoes but that will only eliminate a fraction of the problem….plus you now have a bat problem!

    The best fly repellent on the market by far is Quickbayt Fly Bait. The flies will literally die within 20 seconds of ingesting product. It’s kind of fun watching them do they robot dance just before they say their last goodbyes.

    Caroline Sonier wrote on May 22nd, 2014
  12. The best all natural bug spray out there by far is made by a company called Mission Essentials ( – it’s called Fight Back 2…it smells great, works fabulous and has no alcohol so it feels good.

    Steve wrote on May 26th, 2014
  13. In the early days of DEET, I found it to be USELESS against deer and horse flies.

    I was a Forestry student in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the summer of 1985. The days were hot and we all wore long sleeve and pants for maximum protection against biting insects. I applied a liberal amount of Muskol 99% DEET insect repellent to my exposed hands. I was screwing the cap back on the bottle, when a deer fly landed, on the still wet application, AND BIT ME!!!

    After this incident, I threw the stuff out and bought a box of Swisher Sweet Cigars… In my opinion, smoke is the ONLY effective bug repellant.

    Mark Lopiccola wrote on May 30th, 2014
  14. White Mountain Insect Repellent is the repellent of choice here in NH when the bite is on. Actual motto printed on the display box “Black Flies Hate This Stuff” means what it says. This all natural repellent meets the requirements of the EPA and was tested against 25% DEET and proved a 2 hour rate of protection the same as the DEET product. Sure you need to reapply it every so often but it’s not poisoning your system while protecting you from a blood letting.

    Jean Lavallee wrote on June 22nd, 2014
  15. Forgot to mention. Corn oil is listed by the EPA as an insect repelling oil. So if you want to protect an infant child on a summer camping trip apply some corn oil on the baby….just me sure to hold on tight near the camp fire.

    Jean Lavallee wrote on June 22nd, 2014
  16. During my tour in Vietnam, I served with the South Korean Tiger Div. Vietnam had more than its share of flying, crawling critters and I found out the army-issue insect repellent was nearly worthless. But I discovered quickly the absolute best insect repellent was kimchi, the staple Korean spicy-hot cabbage dish. My fellow Korean soldiers ate kimchi at every meal — they even had it in C-rations and ate it on combat operations; if a chopper could get in, it carried ammo, batteries and other necessities — including freshly made kimchi from base camp. In the tropical climate of Vietnam, we kimchi-eaters sweated the kimchi and kept the mosquitoes and ants at bay. Kimchi is very tasty, comes in a wide variety of presentations, and remains a favorite of mine; there are also certain positive health properties to the dish.

    joe nawrozki wrote on June 22nd, 2014
  17. We’ve found this to be a really effective one already made up from natural ingredients here: like we did for our kids and family……works real great

    ps. If you really want the low down on what does and what does not work against mozzies you could read this great article/blog by a re-nowned Australian entymologist who works solely on mozzie prevention/deterrent research; excellent source!

    Ricki Sucarolin wrote on October 17th, 2015

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