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
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