The great outdoors is calling!
Unfortunately, so are the bugs.
For safer, itch-free outdoor activities, you need an effective insect repellent. But that huge selection of sprays on the market can make your head swim. Should you stick with the conventional bug sprays you grew up with or make the shift to a more natural product?
This is one area of healthy living where the word “chemicals” shouldn’t deter you. In fact, here’s a spoiler alert: by and large, chemical sprays are more effective than just about every “natural” product you can pick up in the camping section.
Want the details? Here’s what you need to know about chemical vs. natural bug spray.
Common Bug Spray Ingredients
Most of the insect repellents on the shelf at your local store have DEET or picaridin as their main active ingredients.
For decades, Americans have been spritzing DEET formulas to keep away pesky insects. DEET is quite good at repelling mosquitoes, ticks and other insects.
This broad-spectrum effectiveness is important because many different insects can cause problems for humans. Mosquitoes can carry diseases like West Nile and Zika. Ticks may cause Lyme disease.
And flies, well, they’re just plain annoying.
Kids 12 and under should stick with a product containing 10% DEET or less. For adults, aim for products that have between 15% and 30% DEET. Higher levels last longer but don’t provide more thorough protection.
You may have heard rumors suggesting that DEET is unsafe, but the Environmental Protection Agency has approved this chemical for use in both children and adults.
You do have to be careful using DEET around your valuable outdoor gear, though. It can damage plastic items, especially at high concentrations.
A more recent addition to the lineup of synthetic bug spray chemicals is picaridin. Scientists came up with the idea for this compound by studying pepper plants.
Like DEET, picaridin does a good job of keeping away mosquitoes. It works on ticks, too. It can be even more effective than DEET at warding off flies, and research suggests it’s better than DEET at keeping mosquitoes from landing on your skin in the first place.
Plus, unlike DEET, picaridin won’t hurt your plastic gear. You may also appreciate that it’s scent-free and won’t leave an oily residue behind.
When you’re in the market for picaridin products, be picky about what you buy. Sprays generally work better than other formulations, such as lotions or wipes. Look for 20% concentration levels.
How Natural Alternatives Stack Up
Natural insect repellents feature plant-based chemicals instead of ones made in a lab. Not all natural bug sprays are created equal, though, so you’ll need to be a savvy shopper.
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
One of the best ingredients to look for in natural bug sprays is oil of lemon eucalyptus. It’s a naturally occurring oil that undergoes a refining process before being used as an insect repellent.
Although it may keep away some ticks, flies and gnats, it’s most useful for mosquito protection. For better bite-free protection, you’ll need a product with 30% concentration. It may ward off mosquitoes for up to six hours.
Despite the fact that this is considered a natural bug repellent, you still shouldn’t ingest it or get it in your eyes.
Important note: oil of lemon eucalyptus is not recommended for kids under age 3.
For young kids, soybean oil might be a promising alternative to oil of lemon eucalyptus. Just a 2% concentration can be enough to fend off mosquito bites for up to four hours.
Soybean oil isn’t a very common ingredient, though. Only select brands include it, so you may not find any in your local store.
Unrefined essential oils are often touted as an all-natural method of keeping away the bugs. Popular choices include citronella, geranium and rosemary.
Despite essential oils’ popularity, though, they haven’t been proven particularly effective at banishing bugs for any length of time.
Although critters may fly away for a few minutes if you’ve used essential oils as a deterrent, they’ll probably be right back around within about half an hour.
So What’s Best?
If you’re serious about keeping an assortment of bugs away — not just mosquitoes, but ticks, flies and others as well — then a synthetic insect repellent will usually be your best bet.
Not only do these products work on a greater variety of bugs, but they also typically stay effective for longer stretches of time.
If you feel guilty for using DEET or picaridin instead of a natural alternative, keep in mind that all bug sprays — even essential oils — contain chemicals. The difference is simply whether the compound originated in nature or a lab.
For those who still want a natural spray, choose lemon eucalyptus or soybean oil instead of an essential oil blend. You’ll get decent mosquito protection with one of these options.
Insect Repellent Tips
No matter which type of bug spray you choose, it’s important to follow the package directions for using and applying it. General guidelines:
- Help kids apply bug spray, especially younger ones, so they don’t get any in their eyes or other sensitive areas.
- Spritz only the parts of your body that aren’t protected by clothes. For your face, spray the product onto your hands and rub gently on your face while avoiding your eyes.
- Apply only as often as indicated. Many products last for hours.
- Put sunscreen on before bug spray when possible.
- Wash with soap and water after coming inside.
Picaridin and low-concentration DEET can be used on babies as young as two months. As with face application, spray it onto your hands first, and then gently rub it over your baby’s skin.
Cover newborns with loose netting instead of applying bug spray.
Remember to Dress the Part
Insect repellents are usually the best defense against bites, but you can supplement with additional products to up your bug protection.
Lots of products exist on the market to ward off insects, but research doesn’t quite support the use of bracelets and other wearables just yet. (The same goes for citronella candles, too.)
You’re better off using bug spray and dressing for the occasion. Even regular clothes can help guard your skin against attacks. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts for walks in the woods, and tuck your pants into your socks when possible. And while sandals might be a hot weather staple, they’re also attractive to mosquitoes, so cover those toes when you can.
Just remember that your clothing should only be your second line of defense. Bug spray, whether conventional or all natural, is your best bet for effectively driving away summertime pests.