The summer is almost upon us and the April showers have brought us May flowers in abundance. Unfortunately, we take the good with the bad and it is also the time for those pesky mosquitoes to come out in abundance too.
Before you reach for that commercial off-the-shelf insect repellent, remember that there are natural alternatives and measures you can take to protect yourself from uncomfortable, itchy insect bites and diseases like West Nile Virus and Lyme Disease.
The most effective commercial insect repellents contain an agent called DEET, chemically known as N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide. DEET is not recommended for small infants and even Health Canada restricts any product that contains more than 30% of this chemical citing human health reasons. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend using DEET on infants under 2 months of age. It stands to reasons that if a product with a 30% concentration of DEET has a health concern then we must still be at risk with lower concentrations. Most of the products found on our shelves that contain DEET have a concentration between 10%-30%. If you insist on using DEET, then note that the general difference in concentration is the length of time it remains effective before needing to reapply.
There are other effective commercial products that contain alternatives to DEET such as the chemical agent Icaridin (a.k.a picaridin or KBR 3023). They are noted as being less harmful but they are also less effective. Why choose to use a chemical substance when there are natural remedies that can prove to be just as effective?
Before we explore these alternatives, let’s understand how and why DEET works. DEET is effective because it affects the olfactory receptors of insects. The olfactory system is the formal term for the parts of your body that interpret smell from the nasal passage that receive scents to the neurons in your brain that interpret them. The olfactory systems of insects, like us humans, contain odorant receptors. It is commonly understood that insects use these olfactory receptors to recognize the smell of prey. Just as we are attracted to, and receive the benefits of, the scent of essential oils, mosquitoes are either repelled by the scent of DEET, or unable to detect it as prey. There have been many studies to explain why this happens but there are inconclusive results. The only certainty from these studies is that it seems to work.
Before we discuss treating insect bites, here are some common sense measures you can take and natural remedies you can apply to avoid being bitten in the first place:
- When possible, avoid being out at dusk and dawn during the humid months of late spring and summer. This is feeding frenzy time for mosquitoes.
- Remove any standing water in and around your home, cottage or workplace. Standing water acts as breading grounds for mosquitoes.
- Wear protective loose light color clothing that tend to blend in with your surroundings and tuck in. The more you blend in with your surroundings, the less you are a target for mosquitoes.
- Avoid perfumes, colognes, body sprays and strong smelling soaps. The more you smell like the great outdoors, the less you will attract mosquitoes.
- Applying natural essential oils is a great deterrent. The best use of essential oils is to dilute with carrier oil (3-4 drops with 10 ml of carrier) and apply directly to the skin every 30-40 minutes. Alternatively, you can mix with alcohol or witch hazel and combine in a spritz bottle. With all essential oils it is important to do a skin patch test prior to broad application to ensure that you do not have an adverse reaction. Many essential oils will work wonders, but they also have additional health benefits so experiment with the ones that best suit you. Like DEET, natural essential oils interfere with the olfactory receptors on insects. The following are all effective:
- Citronella – The botanical name for citronella is Cymbopogon nardus. It is probably the most commonly known essential oil for the defense against mosquitoes. You can find this in various forms of candles and oils that burn in lanterns and tiki torches, but check that it isn't combined with chemical additives. You can simply mix citronella essential oil with carrier oil and apply it directly to your skin.
- Lavender – Lavender is of the most common and safest essential oil and is well known to ward off insect bites as well as help alleviate the symptoms of allergies.
- Lemongrass - Lemongrass has uplifting and calming properties that help invigorate the mind and calm most stress related emotions. Lemongrass shares similar properties with citronella and has a great reputation for keeping insects away.
- Peppermint - In addition to reducing coughs, headaches and nausea, it also has value as an insect repellent. It also helps alleviate the discomfort of menopause, menstruation and greatly improves digestion.
- Eucalyptus - In addition to its many qualities, Eucalyptus Oil may be used for frequent sneezing, hay fever, flu, respiratory problems and as an insect repellent.
- Lemon Eucalyptus - Officially known as Corymbia citriodora,Lemon Eucalyptus or Lemon Scented Gum is a tall tree, growing to 35 meters in height, typically found in Australia, Brazil and China. The essential oil of Lemon Eucalyptus contains 80% citronella and is recognized by the World Health Organization as a sound alternative to DEET.
- Sandalwood - Although very expensive and highly sought after, sandalwood oil can be used for its strong aphrodisiac effect, to help clear bronchitis, coughs, chest infections, asthma, reduce insomnia, irritability, nervous tension, alleviate stress, for simply relaxing, and yes as an insect repellent.
- Cedarwood - Sharing similar qualities of Sandalwood, but much more abundant and less expensive, Cedarwood oil can be used for arthritis, bronchitis, rheumatism, respiratory problems, as a general tonic and also as an insect repellent.
- The use of Vitamin B patches is a newer phenomenon. You can usually find these in any store that sells camping supplies and equipment. The effective ingredient is Thiamine (Vitamin B1). It typically starts working after 2 hours and lasts for over 24 hours with one patch. It claims to be odorless, but after 24 hours, we find that your sweat tends to smell akin to cat urine. It works by releasing thiamine on to your outer layers of your skin and it either interferes with an insects olfactory system to determine you as prey, or it completely repels them. Ironically, this product is also sold in different packaging and known as a hangover remedy.
If you do get bitten by mosquitoes, some good natural remedies to relieve itchy bites include:
- Vinegar – Vinegar is very effective, but most effective when applied as soon as you know you are bitten. Soak a cotton ball with vinegar and rub it on your bite as often as you like.
- Essential Oils – The qualities of Vetiver, Eucalyptus, Cedarwood, Tea Tree, Lavender, Rosemary and Ylang-Ylang all have constituents that relieve the itching and swelling from being bitten. Consider blending oils to provide a unique scent such as Citronella, Cedarwood, and Lavender Essential Oil. Remember to always dilute with carrier oil before applying to skin and do a patch test.
- Fresh Aloe – Aloe is great for burns, but is also a reliever of insect bites. It will ease the itching and the swelling. Best results are obtained when you apply the Aloe directly from the plant by breaking a fresh piece off the aloe plant.
- Baking Soda and Water – Mix baking soda with water to create a thick paste and spread it over your ailment. This remedy will not only ease your itching, but will also reduce the swelling. A good trick to get even better relief is to refrigerate the paste prior to use. The cooling factor will work be a welcomed complement. Add peppermint essential oil for even added benefits and relief. This is our favorite concoction.
- Natural Peppermint toothpaste – Not many people have natural peppermint toothpaste lying around, but it is pretty much the same as using a baking soda paste with peppermint essential oil.
- Garlic – This is far from our personal favorite but it is effective. Rub a fresh clove of garlic on your bite and it will relieve the itching and swelling. The downside is that it stings at first … and you smell bad. Garlic is great in food, but not so pleasant when you bathe in it.
Whatever you use to prevent insect bites and to treat insect bites, remember that you do have options. You owe it to yourself to make informed decisions and experiment. If you have any prevention or treatment remedies that have been successful to you, we welcome your comments.