Summer is upon us and it's time for fun outdoors. My favorite thing about winter is that there are no bugs! True story: I went to the ER once for a mosquito bite because my leg swelled up so much I could barely walk. If you're like me, you'd do anything to keep those disease carrying biting creatures away from yourself and your kids. But as a cloth diapering, holistic mom and well informed scientist, I'd also do anything to keep pesticides and dangerous chemical away from myself and my baby. What to do?
You might already have some bug spray ready to go. Let’s find out what’s in your bug spray; its pros and cons.
What’s in your bugs spray?
While I don’t use these myself and don’t recommend using these on your body, I think it’s important to understand their applications and pros and cons when deciding what’s best for your family.
DEET - An insect repellent that discourages insects to land, but does not kill the insect. It can be purchased at 5% to 100% concentrations. Generally, the higher the percentage, the longer the protection, but for most applications, 10 to 25% is sufficient. The Center for Disease Control recommends under 35% for adults and under 10% for children.
Pros: Proven, long lasting protection and approved to prevent spread of disease by the Center for Disease Control. Excellent mosquito repellent.
Cons: May cause headaches, lethargy, seizures, and convulsions. Not recommended for children under 2 years of age. Dissolves plastics such as fishing lines, breathable fabrics such as GoreTex, sunglasses, etc. Poor tick repellent. May cause skin irritations, avoid contact with eyes or broken skin.
Permethrin – An insecticide that kills ticks and mosquitos on contact. It should only be used on clothing, never on skin. Clothing treated with Permethrin repels insects for up to two weeks if not washed.
Pros: Effective tick repellent. Long lasting. Does not dissolve plastics.
Cons: A neurotoxin that’s dangerously toxic to cats and fish. Animal studies indicate that Permethrin has cancer causing potential.
Picaridin – A relatively new insect repellent in the US, it first became available in this country in 2005. Repels mosquitos and ticks. Available in 7 to 20% concentrations.
Pros: Does not damage plastics. For most people, smells better than DEET. More effective against flies. May cause less skin irritations compared to DEET.
Cons: Minimal safety data available. Shorter history of use in the US, long term health effects unknown.
Now that you have a better idea of the active ingredients in bug spray, let's talk about the insects themselves. Here are the top three buggies we worry the most about in the northeast.
Mosquitos – More active during dusk and dawn, mosquitos are attracted to carbon dioxide and movement, so be especially careful when doing physical activities outside. Pregnant moms are also at higher risk because they emit more carbon dioxide.
Natural Strategies: Don’t breathe… just kidding. Use netting for infant strollers. For backyard play, use a geraniol based wearable repellent such as the Bug Band. For camping in the woods, bundle up with long sleeves and use a repellent lotion such as the Bug Band Spray Lotion, and reapply often.
Ticks – Active any time during the day, tick may carry Lyme disease and a host of other nasty illnesses. Ticks are also attracted to carbon dioxide, (bad news for those of us who breathe). While it’s helpful to wear white to make ticks easier to spot, the fact you are wearing white will also attract them to you, catch 22. My suggestion is to wear dark clothing, but do a careful inspection after returning from the outdoors.
Natural Strategies: For your yard, install Tick Tubes, which contain Permetherin soaked cotton balls that mice and other rodents love to collect and build nests. This doesn’t harm the rodents, but kills the ticks that they carry. For hikes in the woods, tuck your pants into socks, and shirt into pants. Don’t sit on logs and stay on trails. Find a partner and check hard to see areas for ticks, and wash and dry all clothing to kill any hitch hikers. The Bug Band Spray Lotion also protects against ticks, apply it on exposed skin to minimize your risk.
Blackflies – The blackfly season can start as early as mid-May in the mountainous regions of upstate NY. While the disease carrying potential is low, their bite is painful, and once they bite, they are relentless! DEET is not effective in repelling blackflies, some studies actually show that it attracts them.
Natural Strategies: Blackflies are only active during the day, so avoid going to high risk areas after dusk. Geraniol based products and sachets of crushed mint have been shown to work well. Again, long sleeves and netting will protect you when venturing into the woods.
Hope this guide helps you come up with your own set of techniques to protect yourself and your family from annoying, disease carrying bugs. Also remember, to avoid "bug and sun" products because they are usually less effective for both purposes. It might seem handy at first, but you might need to reapply sunscreen, but don’t really need more bug repellent, and now you are either overdosing on repellent or scorching in the sun. For more ideas on natural insect protection, visit the Times Union Holistic Health Blog by Judi England!