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Buzz Off

Natural insect repellents


Buzz Off

It's the peak of camping season, and outdoor adventurers know that along with the pleasures of picnicking beside pristine lakes and sleeping under starry skies come swarms of blood-sucking insects.

It’s the peak of camping season, and outdoor adventurers know that along with the pleasures of picnicking beside pristine lakes and sleeping under starry skies come swarms of blood-sucking insects.

Mosquitoes may be carriers of the potentially deadly West Nile virus, and some ticks can be infected with Lyme disease. It’s important to protect yourself from these critters when outside.

One way to keep hungry pests away is to slather your body with harsh chemical repellents. But not everyone likes the idea of dousing themselves—or their children—with toxic lotions and sprays.

“It’s scary for moms and dads, because kids put their hands in their mouths,” says Jason West, manager of the Oshawa-based Feel Good Natural Health Stores. “With the chemical repellents, there are different concentrations for different age groups, so it can get confusing.”

There’s good news for people who want to save their skin from toxic stuff: the market has an abundance of natural alternatives to chemical anti- bug concoctions.

Lemon aid

Citronella is probably the best-known natural bug repellent. Extracted from the fragrant tropical grass plant Cymbopogon nardus of Southern Asia, the lemon-scented oil comes in lotion, spray, rub-on, wipe-on, candle, and incense forms. It’s also registered with the Washington, DC-based Environmental Protection Agency as an insect repellent. However, citronella is not necessarily the most effective product, at least according to some research.

The New England Journal of Medicine reported in 2003 that the substance warded off bugs for about 20 minutes or less. Compare that to common chemical repellents which, depending on the concentration, last anywhere from two to 10 hours or more.

Lemon and eucalyptus

Another shorter-acting natural option—but proven to be just as effective as the leading chemical substances—is lemon-eucalyptus oil. It protects against mosquitoes for about two hours.

Catnip cure

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is one more potentially potent tool to add to the natural arsenal. Researchers at Iowa State University found that oil from the perennial herb, a member of the mint family, repels mosquitoes better than the compound used in most commercial repellents.

Neem oil relief

A natural vegetable oil, neem oil is extracted from the Azadirachta indica tree. The leaves, seeds, and seed oil of the neem tree contain sallanin, a compound that has strong mosquito-repelling properties.

Combination catnip and neem oil spray-on blends are available and may work for repelling bugs.

Note: Do not apply pure catnip or neem oil directly on your skin; visit your local health food store to find diluted blends of these oils that are safe to apply topically.

Helpful herbal blends

Scores of other plants have been tested as possible insect repellents, including cedar, verbena, geranium, lavender, pine, cinnamon, rosemary, basil, thyme, allspice, garlic, and peppermint. Some products combine two or more of such botanicals to drive away arthropods.

One such blend, for instance, contains oils of citronella, cedar, peppermint, lemongrass, and geranium encapsulated in beeswax. According to a 2003 study by the University of Guelph, the product provided 100 percent protection for two hours and more than 85 percent protection for over three hours.

Another product available at natural health stores takes a similar multiherbal approach with soybean oil, geranium oil, and other ingredients mixed with wintergreen, citronella, cedarwood, peppermint, and lemongrass essential oils.

When it comes to insect-repelling lotions and sprays, though, it’s still important to be careful: just because something is labelled “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe.

“Use the same cautious way when you’re applying anything, especially with little ones, whose skin is so sensitive,” advises West. “Test a small spot on the back of the hand first.”

His other advice? Get outside! 

Nontopical solutions

Not all mosquito repellents have to be applied to the body. Some products come with a butane cartridge that heats a repellent mat, which releases allethrin, a copy of a naturally occurring insecticide. The cell can cover an area up to 225 square feet (21 square metres) for up to four hours per mat. This type of mosquito repellent mat is used by the US Army in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan.



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD