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Five natural ways to keep bug-free

woman and grandchild wearing long sleeves in garden
May 11, 2016 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Now that spring is in full throttle—and summer is right around the corner—I hope you’re taking advantage of the warmth and greenery.

Simply getting outside and moving around can be great for you.

Provided you take the proper precautions.

Believe it or not, mosquitoes—acting as a vector for disease—are the biggest killer we face, taking out 100 million people every year.

And this year, we’ve got the Zika virus to worry about as well.

Not to mention, all the diseases—like Lyme and Colorado Tick Fever—carried by other bugs.

When you go outside, it’s imperative that you protect yourself.

But you shouldn’t pick up just any insect repellent. Some can be dangerous—often worse than anything a North American mosquito is likely to be carrying.

So let’s take a look at how you should best protect yourself—in a way that’s entirely safe, and extremely effective.

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Watch out for synthetic repellents

First things first—never use DEET.

DEET—the most common ingredient in insect repellents—is highly toxic. It is a neurotoxin—it attacks the central nervous system. It can cause tremors, and there is some evidence it might cause death in young children.

Granted, the worst symptoms tend to crop up when DEET is inhaled, instead of applied to skin. But skin application isn’t necessarily safe either—and try spraying an insect repellent without getting any aerosol in your nose or mouth.

To be safe, you should simply avoid DEET altogether. And if you find yourself near DEET, avoid direct contact—especially with any orifices, but also with skin.

DEET is fabulously effective against insects. But it’s not worth the associated health risks.

Five ways to keep bug-free

There are many great options for keeping insects at bay.

  1. Wear long pants and shirts. The best option is also the most obvious. Bugs can’t bite what they can’t get to. Long sleeves and long pants—tucked into socks—keep exposed skin to a minimum. This simple step will protect you better than anything else.
  2. Use soy-based products. Natural repellents made with natural soy have been shown to be very effective—about on par with DEET. There are two big differences. One—it doesn’t last quite as long, so you should reapply about every 90 minutes. And two—it’s completely safe.
  3. Use oil of lemon eucalyptus. This is recommended by the CDC as an alternative to DEET. It’s entirely natural and safe for use on skin, but can be poisonous if ingested, so use appropriate caution and keep it out of reach of small children.
  4. Use pyrethrum insect powder. Pyrethrum is, very simply, dried chrysanthemum flowers ground up and made into a powder. This all-natural repellent was a favorite of the French army during the Napoleonic Wars, and it remains effective today. However, it’s not stable in sunlight, so only use this powder at night.
  5. Use insect repellent clothing. Some clothes have repellent built into them. In almost all cases, the active ingredient is Permethrin. Permethrin is an altered version of pyrethrum—it is stable in sunlight, and it can survive about 70 washes.

As you know, I’m not a fan of synthetic repellents. However, Pemethrin is about the safest version of a synthetic repellent, delivered in the safest possible way. With the protection built into the clothing, there’s no need to worry about skin contact, or accidental ingestion.

And, since permethrin affects insects about 2,000 times more than it affects mammals, a very little bit goes a long way. Taken together, I’m willing to tolerate repellent clothing, provided it works best for my patients.

Between all these options, you should be able to find a natural and safe alternative to DEET and other synthetic repellents. And I hope that will encourage you to get active, and get outside.


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