It is that wonderful time of year again where all of the insects suddenly appear, and our glorious summer evenings have turned into a constant battle between enjoying the cool night air and not getting eaten alive. During this time, it is easy to pick up the cheapest bug repellants and spray away, thinking we are doing all we can to avoid the nasty bug bites that come with the changing of seasons. Unfortunately, we are opening up doors for toxic ingredients to be inhaled and absorbed into our bloodstream. While some ingredients are safe to use in moderation, others should be avoided completely.
So let’s dig in...
The most well-known bug spray ingredient and registered pesticide is DEET. It is one of the most effective, yet controversial ingredients found in a fair amount of bug repellents. It effectively repels many bugs and ticks, therefore reducing illnesses such as the Zika virus and Lyme disease. According to the EWG, when used as directed, DEET is considered safe by many public health organizations such as the CDC, AAP, WHO, and the EPA. Even with all of the information about the known toxicity of DEET, the EPA still concludes that normal use of the chemical is safe for the general population. It should be noted that it is known to irritate the eyes, and can, in very large doses, cause many issues such as neurological damage, skin blisters, seizures, memory loss, headaches, stiffness in the joints, and shortness of breath. The EWG also states concerns with children because they inevitably receive more DEET due to a greater surface area to body weight ratio.
DEET is quickly absorbed through the skin, and when combined with sunscreens containing the chemical oxybenzone, it is absorbed even faster. It also has the ability to cross the placenta, and in animal studies, it remained in offspring up to three months old after maternal exposure.
An important note to make with DEET is that while there are products out there that have up to 100 percent DEET, increasing the concentration does not increase efficacy! Because of all of the known effects of DEET, it is also recommended to wear long sleeves and pants, and spray your clothing rather than your skin. The Canadian government recommends limiting DEET to 30 percent in products that you use, and using an even smaller concentration for children. Their recommendations go as follows:
“The right concentration of DEET for:
For infants younger than 6 months old, do not use an insect repellent containing DEET. Instead, use a mosquito net when babies are outdoors in a crib or stroller.
Pyrethroids are a common name for a group of bug repellent chemicals. This group contains over 1,000 insecticides including:
Permethrin is a synthetic version of pyrethrum. It is labeled as non-toxic by the EPA, but still poses risks. It can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through our skin, and it can cause eye, skin, nose, and throat irritation as well as breathing problems. It is a suspected carcinogen, hormone disruptor, neurotoxicant, and reproductive toxicant. One study conducted at Duke University showed that when exposed to both DEET and permethrin, side effects such as motor deficits and memory dysfunction can occur.
Cyfluthrin is a synthetic insecticide that closely resembles DDT and is moderately toxic when inhaled. Breathing in this chemical can cause headaches, nausea, and vomiting. It accumulates in fatty tissues and, therefore, affects the central nervous system. It is highly toxic when consumed (which is why it is so important to assess what we put on our children as they are more likely to put their hands in their mouth). Because cyfluthrin affects the central nervous system so much, it has been known to cause jerky movements, incoordination, muscle trembles, and convulsions. In a study conducted with rats, it caused nerve degeneration and it broke down muscle tissue. To make matters worse, being exposed to any kind of pyrethroid increases the risk of skin paresthesia. This tingling or burning sensation on the skin’s surface is made worse by heat, sun, or perspiration. This is cause for concern of course since bug sprays are used in the summertime, when you spend more time in the sun, are prone to getting hot, and sweat more.
So how can we safely repel insects?
There are many ways to naturally prevent bug bites. The most notable include:
Many essential oils deter insects, however the most notable is Lemon Eucalyptus. It is effective in that it contains para-menthane-3,8-diol (PMD) which makes it more difficult for insects to detect your scent. It should be noted that lemon eucalyptus should NOT be used by children under the age of 3 as it poses a risk of skin irritation. You can safely make your own essential oil blend by using a combination of any of these oils diluted with a carrier oil:
IR3535 is a synthetic ingredient that has been used for about 30 years in Europe as a safe bug repellent ingredient. It can be very irritating to the eyes, but works well and is safe to use. It works similarly to lemon eucalyptus in that it messes with an insect's sense of smell. It is just about as effective as DEET at repelling mosquitos, and is an excellent choice to repel ticks, offering twice the protection time as DEET. It has been recommended for use by pregnant women and young children (although it is still recommended to avoid putting on children’s hands, as its toxicity is unknown when ingested).
Any information given through this platform is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical care or medical advice. Please do not use this information to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. You should always speak with your healthcare provider before taking any medication or nutritional, herbal, or homeopathic supplement.
Chemicals of Concern in Bug Repellent
ATSDR - Toxicological Profile: DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide)a
Insect repellents - Canada.ca
Poisoning Due to Pyrethroids - PubMed
IR3535 Repellent FAQ | Safety, Effectiveness, Side Effects
Repellent Chemicals | EWG's 2018 Guide to Bug Repellents
OH, Sunscreen. The summer item deemed essential by every governing health official under the sun. It is an item we quickly grab off the shelf after skimming which one has the highest SPF coverage. We pat ourselves on the back if it has some kind of “natural” component added to the title. Then we slather it onto our skin and our children’s skin and rush out to play in community pools, lakes, rivers, and oceans.
The sad truth is that many drugstore sunscreens contain harmful ingredients. These ingredients are not only hazardous for our health, but they also harm marine health as well. I don’t know about you, but I would love for my children and grandchildren and GREAT grandchildren to live in a world with abundant marine life.
Conventional sunscreens contain toxic chemicals including:
Whew. Hefty list, right? Let’s break this down a little bit.
Oxybenzone forms colorless, soluble crystals and is used as an ingredient in sunscreen as well as other cosmetics because it absorbs UV-A ultraviolet rays. Sounds helpful, doesn’t it? What manufacturers don’t tell you is that oxybenzone is also known to exacerbate skin issues and can cause skin allergies. The EWG states that oxybenzone is clearly a photo allergen, meaning that it can cause your immune system to attack sun exposed areas. On top of that, studies done on both animal and human cells show that this ingredient can be a hormone disruptor. While this ingredient is potentially dangerous to us, it is also suggested that it may be hazardous to coral reefs. So much so, that Hawaii has actually banned the sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone beginning in 2021.
Avobenzone is used in conventional sunscreens to absorb the full spectrum of UVA rays, and on it’s own, it really isn’t that harmful. The problem is that it also isn’t really effective on its own, as it breaks down when it is exposed to sunlight and only offers about 30 minutes of protection. That is, of course, unless it is paired with a not-so-safe chemical (like octocrylene) to make it work for a longer period of time. Think of Avobenzone as a “gateway” chemical if you will. The use of it leads to more chemicals that cause more harm than good.
While we are on the topic of avobenzone, let’s chat about octocrylene! Octocrylene is a known endocrine disruptor that helps to stabilize avobenzone. It also releases free radicals. According to this study, more free radicals were present when using octocrylene than skin exposed to the sun with no sunscreen at all. It is also important to note that free radicals can damage skin cells and increase the risk for cancer and other health issues.
Homosalate is used in 45% of U.S. sunscreens as a chemical UV filter, absorbing UVB rays specifically. It is a concerning ingredient because it is known to disrupt the estrogen system in particular. In human breast cancer cells, exposure to this chemical multiplied cell growth 3.5 times. Homosalate also affects the androgen and progesterone systems. It is absorbed by the outer layer of the skin, and is easily transmitted during gestation and infancy due to the mother’s exposure to the chemical. According to one study, 85.2% of breastmilk samples from 54 women contained UV filters. Homosalate also increases the amount of pesticides we absorb through our skin, which is concerning considering sunscreen and bug spray tend to go hand-in-hand this time of year.
We have heard over and over again that parabens are bad for us. They are what manufacturers use in their products to preserve them and fight against bacteria. Parabens are harmful in that they have the ability to mimic estrogen. These potential hormone disruptors have been found to weakly bind to estrogen receptors. In addition to this, parabens can block androgens (like testosterone) and inhibit the enzymes that metabolize estrogen. Applying products containing parabens (especially methylparaben) can lead to UV-induced damage of skin cells and the disruption of the rate at which cells grow. Methylparaben in particular can accumulate with daily application because it cannot be completely metabolized. Some parabens can also be harmful for men, as studies have found that the chemical can reduce sperm production as well as lead to reduced testosterone levels.
Cyclopentasiloxane is a silicone that is regularly used in cosmetic products. It gives that silky, slippery feeling when applied to the skin and hair which allows the product to spread more easily. This ingredient is cheaper compared to similar chemicals, which is why it is favored by manufacturers regardless of its safety for humans or the environment. Great, right? While there is minimal risk for human use (it may be a hormone disruptor in higher concentrations, and most products contain lower concentrations of this chemical), it does wash off very easily, causing it to accumulate in some aquatic animals.
Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical that is actually recommended by the FDA to not be used in the home as it can encourage bacterial resistance to antibiotics. It has also been used as a pesticide since 1969. Even low levels of triclosan may disrupt thyroid function. It is also linked to liver toxicity. While it is not cancerous per se, recent studies have shown it to promote the growth of a tumor in the presence of a carcinogen in mice. According to the EWG, wastewater treatment doesn’t even remove all of this chemical, meaning it ends up in our water sources and accumulates in fatty tissues of our aquatic life.
Formaldehyde is used to preserve bodies in funeral homes, so it makes sense that it is also present in sunscreens (and other cosmetics as well), right? According to safecosmetics.org, “Formaldehyde is considered a known human carcinogen by many expert and government bodies, including the United States National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.” A study conducted in 2014 found that this chemical initiates and promotes tumor formation. The use of formaldehyde in cosmetics has been correlated with allergic skin reactions and rashes. So much so, that in 2015, it was actually qualified as the American Contact Dermatitis Society Contact Allergen of the Year! A sensitivity to this ingredient can develop over time after repeated exposures. When reading labels, you have to look out for other formaldehyde-releasing preservatives such as quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin, as these are just as dangerous.
This chemical is an antimicrobial and a preservative used in both personal care items as well as cleaning products. While formaldehyde had to wait until 2015 to claim its title as Allergen of the Year, MIT claimed it in 2013. This chemical is known to cause skin sensitization. In high doses, rats were revealed after autopsy to have died from reddened lungs and swollen intestines due to the exposure.
Using any product with microbeads is harmful for the environment (and yourself!) While microbeads do exfoliate your skin, they actually do more harm than good. Instead of only removing the dead skin from your face, they actually create small tears in your skin, leaving it more susceptible to bacteria. These plastic beads are then washed down the drain and end up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. Once in the water, they can damage the health of marine life, hurt our environment, and create more health risks for humans. This is due to their composition, their ability to absorb toxins, and their potential to travel up the marine food chain.
According to the EWG and the European Commission of Endocrine Disruption, there is strong evidence that octinoxate is a human endocrine disruptor. They also state that it can significantly disrupt wildlife and the environment. This study shows that octinoxate produces damaging reactive oxygen species when exposed to sunlight. Which is ironic. Considering it is commonly used in sunscreens..
Unfortunately in the U.S. manufacturers can legally hide hundreds of synthetic chemicals by using the umbrella term, “fragrance”. They do not have to disclose those ingredients, meaning we have no idea what we are being exposed to on a daily basis. According to the EWG, more than 75% of products using the ingredient “fragrance” contain phthalates. Phthalates have shown to affect hormone activity, lower sperm counts, cause reproductive malformation, and have been linked to many different forms of cancer.
This form of Vitamin A, according to a study conducted in 2012, may speed up the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight. While taken internally, it can actually reduce the risk of certain skin cancers, the same is not true when used topically. Officials in Germany and Norway have cautioned that It can spur excess skin growth, and form free radicals that can damage skin cells.
4-MBC has strong evidence against it as being a human endocrine disruptor according to the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption. It delays male puberty and changes hormone receptor expression in the prostate of rats. It has also been found to persistently accumulate in wildlife, and it is suspected to accumulate in humans. In one study, 78.8% of women reported using products with UV filters, and 76.5% of breast milk samples contained these filters.
So why not be intentional about the things that go onto and into our bodies? Take the time to look for a sunscreen that takes our health and the health of our planet seriously. Your skin, your body, and the earth will thank you for choosing to be intentional about what chemicals you expose yourself and others to. Be mindful this summer. Cover up when you can, go out in shorter intervals, and choose a quality sunscreen! Enjoy yourselves, and, most importantly, enjoy the benefits of being outside!
Nature knows how to take care of you. And when your body is craving vitamins, supplements, and health support from earth-true resources, you can count on Natural Foods & Supplements of Kearney to have the products and tools you need. Our broad selections of supplements, essential oils, and effective probiotics make it easy to fill your body with goodness. And our holistic offerings like Zaza Boo cosmetics and Himalayan Salt lamps support your wellness from the outside in. Plus, our caring staff is always here to help you find exactly what you're looking for among our variety of offerings. Give your body the tools for wellness and healing, and let nature do the rest.