The heat of Summer is most people’s favorite time of the year, but on the flip side, it also brings peak mosquitos and ticks; oh my! Another problem is, like most other products, the bug sprays on the market are super toxic, loaded with risky chemicals like DEET, which, when studied, has been shown to cause brain cells to die!? I don’t know about you, but I would happily take some bug bites over killing brain cells, so today, Organic Bunny is breaking down DEET, why it’s so toxic, and what safer options I recommend instead! So, what is the best natural bug spray, you say? Let’s go!
What Is DEET Exactly?
DEET, or N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (also known as diethyltoluamide), is the most commonly used active ingredient to repel disease-carrying insects and ticks and is used in bug sprays, lotions, and sticks. DEET was originally developed in 1944 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for the Army, originally tested as a pesticide in farming, later used in the military to repel bugs, and then, finally registered for the general public to use as a bug repellent in 1957.
Back in 1942, the other bug repellents on the market only repelled for about 2 hours so a USDA lab set out to create something with better results for the military who needed longer coverage for up to 10 hours.
DEET is designed to be applied directly to the skin and makes it hard for biting bugs to smell us. According to OFF! DEET interferes with neurons and receptors on the mosquito’s antennae and mouth-parts that detect chemicals such as lactic acid and carbon dioxide and do not kill bugs. When applied correctly, DEET forms a vapor barrier at the skin surface that deters mosquitoes from landing on the skin. This means to work; you must cover your entire body with the DEET. The U.S. EPA estimates that approximately 1/3 of the U.S. population uses DEET each year.
Reasons to Avoid DEET-
Unfortunately, DEET can be highly toxic for a number of reasons because it can enter our system in a variety of ways. We can inhale it, it can be applied to the skin, fumes can contact the eyes, and it the fumes can even be swallowed if it is applied to hands and then you eat after. Another issue is that when applied to the skin, researchers did find that DEET was absorbed into the skin.
Many people are also applying these bug sprays to small, vulnerable children’s bodies. There are various rules and regulations for using DEET on children, which alone show what a risk this ingredient is. DEET also, once sprayed into the environment, contaminates our air, soil, and water. Researchers also wondered what effect DEET would have once placed into water with fish. For freshwater fish and bugs, DEET was toxic at high levels, resulting in the death of the fish.
What Are the Risks of DEET?
- DEET is a known irritant and can cause redness, blisters, swelling, rashes, and severe skin reactions, as well as numbness of affected areas .
- It can cause eye irritation and excess tearing .
- DEET can cross the placenta when used by pregnant women. Researchers studied women in their second and third trimesters using a 20% DEET product applied to their arms and legs. They found that the DEET had crossed the placenta because it was found in 8% of the cord blood samples .
- Exposure to DEET can cause brain cells to die after prolonged use. A 2001 study out of Duke University on adult rats found that daily exposure to DEET for a period of 60 days lead to cell death. This scientist’s research concluded that heavy exposure to DEET can also cause memory loss, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and shortness of breath [4, 5]. All to repel bugs? Enough said!
- DEET can dissolve plastics and other synthetic materials .
- According to a 1998 EPA evaluation, there were between 14 and 46 seizures, including 4 deaths, associated with DEET since 1960 .
- A Swedish study found men who used insect repellent for 115 or more days showed an increased risk of developing testicular cancer. A majority of the repellents used contained DEET .
- In the mid-1980s, six girls between the ages of 1 and 8, were reported as having developed encephalopathy following exposure to DEET; three of these girls died . Another review of available literature reports 17 cases of encephalitis following the use of DEET in children under 16 years old .
- One study confirmed that when pregnant rats were exposed to DEET at high levels, their babies were born underweight. Among the maternal rats being studied, two died from exposure to the DEET .
- A 2020 study linked DEET exposure in women during the preconception period to a malformation that can occur in the brain .
What Should You Use Instead?
Most people really dislike being attacked by bugs, so I feel ya, we need something, so, what can we use that comes with fewer risks but that is still as effective!? Let’s discuss!
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE)
The extract from the leaves of the lemon eucalyptus tree is the most effective and well-established natural alternative to DEET. OLE is the waste product left behind during the distillation process that creates lemon-eucalyptus essential oil. OLE has been found to effectively repel bugs between 2 and 12 hours, depending on the concentration. A recent consumer reports study found products containing 30% OLE to be effective between 5 and 7 hours . These findings are consistent with the effectiveness of DEET, and, interestingly, have shown to be more effective as a tick protectant than DEET . OLE is different from lemon eucalyptus essential oil, which should not be used as a repellent! Note, it should not be used on children under 3 years of age, due to a risk of eye irritation.
Soybean oil is safe to use on infants and children and provides 1 to 8 hours of protection when applied directly to the skin. USDA researchers conducted a study using a product containing 2% soybean oil, which depending on the species of mosquito, effectively repelled between 5 and 8.5 hours . A second study found soybean oil to effectively repel mosquitos for about 1.5 hours .
Neem oil, derived from the neem tree, has a long history of being used in Ayurvedic medicine and is considered a safe, natural treatment for many ailments. Some research shows bite-reduction rates of only 25% for up to 2 hours, but field studies indicate neem can protect between 81-91% for up to 12 hours ! While the jury may still be out on this one, it does look promising!
Shop Athar’a Pure’s Neem Oil; this is a great option for use anywhere on the body.
A member of the mint family, this feline favorite is also an EPA-registered approved mosquito repellent. Studies show catnap deters pests for up to 7 hours and is a more effective spatial repellent, with some research even showing it to be 10x more effective than DEET [10, 11].
Try the Wilderness Maven Insect Repellant Balm that contains Catnip Oil, Citronella, and more!
Derived from plants, this is a lemon-scented oil that can be used topically or in candles to repel mosquitoes. It requires more frequent application to be considered an effective treatment. One study found citronella to be 97.9% effective upon application, 71.4% effective at 1 hour, and 57.7% effective by 2 hours . Other studies show that citronella used in conjunction with vanillin can effectively repel up to 3 hours . Because citronella can cause skin sensitivity, it is recommended to use in concentrations that do not exceed 10%, also noting that EPA-registered products contain 5% or less.
A variety of essential oils such as lavender, thyme, eucalyptus, rosemary, and tea tree also prove to be effective repellents. Research data shows these oils have protection rates that range from 91% to 95% [14, 15].With so many safe-for-you alternatives, there is no need to risk exposing yourself to the potential risks associated with DEET.
Check out the Organic Bunny store for all of my favorite DEET-free options and then, tell a friend!
 Bell JW, Veltri JC, Page BC. Human Exposures to N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide Insect Repellents Reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers 1993-1997. Int. J. Toxicol. 2002, 21 (5), 341-352.
 Abu-Qare, Aqel W. and Mohamed B. Abou-Donia. 2001. DEET (N,N-Diethyl-m-Toluamide) alone and in combination with permethrin increased urinary excretion of 6B-hydroxycortisol in rats, a marker of hepatic cyp3a induction. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 64:373-384.
 Abu-Qare, Aqel W. and Mohamed B. Abou-Donia. 2001. Combined exposure to DEET (N,N-Diethyl-m-Toluamide) and permethrin-induced release of rat brain mitochondrial cytochrome c. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 63:243-252.
 Technical Guide No. 36: Personal Protective Measures Against Insects and Other Arthropods of Military Significance; Defense Pest Management Information Analysis Center (DPMIAC), Armed Forces Pest Management Board (AFPMB): Washington, DC, 2002; pp 21-25.
 Lee, Mi. Essential oils as repellents against arthropods. BioMed Research Int. 2018; Vol 2018 ID 6860271.
 Barnard, D.R. and R. Xue. 2004. Laboratory evaluation of mosquito repellents against Aedes albopictus, Culex nigripalpus, and Ochlerotatus triseriatus (Diptera: Culicidae). J. Med. Entomol. 41(4):726-730.
 Fradin, M.S. and J.F. Day. 2002. Comparative efficacy of insect repellents against mosquito bites. N. Engl. J. Med. 347:13-18.
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