The Goods on Insect Repellent

If you’re a fan of the great outdoors, you’re no doubt spending a lot of time enjoying it during these warm months. And if you’re a fan, you’re also probably experienced in dealing with the not-so-nice part about being outside – insects.

Insect bites go hand-in-hand with enjoying nature so using a repellent is the name of the prevention game. Unfortunately, the best results typically come from using DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) or picaridin. Most conventional insect repellents use DEET, a harsh chemical used in jungle warfare by the U.S. Army during the Second World War. It was registered as a pesticide in 1957. It works for preventing mosquito bites by confusing odor receptors on mosquitoes’ attennaes (a mosquito targets humans by body heat, carbon dioxide, and your body’s chemicals, namely lactic acid). It is considered to be radar-jammer.

The bad news: a recent study shows mosquitoes are developing a resistance to DEET. It is toxic to pets when ingested at high doses (i.e. if a dog or a cat licks it off your skin). It is not recommended for children; Canada’s federal health department states no child under the age of six months should use DEET, and those between six months and 12 years should avoid products containing more than 10 per cent DEET. Depending on the brand and concentration, adults don’t need to use any more than 30 per cent, which lasts about two to five hours. There are studies that show regular use of DEET could cause damage to DNA and have a negative effect on the nervous system. It can also dissolve certain plastics and some materials such as rayon, vinyl, and spandex.

Picaridin a synthetic compound developed from a plant extract (genus Piper), another pesticide, lasts longer, up to eight hours but is still relatively new having been developed during the 1980s. Interesting to note, picaridin is thought to be more effective against flies than DEET. Avon uses this substance in its Skin So Soft line and some swear by it as an effective, possibly healthier, alternative to DEET.

The good news: while there is limited evidence that natural products work as insect repellents, some claim to have success using the following:


Some say that eating a lot of garlic before spending any time outdoors helps fight off the biting bugs. Just don’t share a tent with anybody. Or make sure you bring a couple of apples. Apples are a wonderful breath freshener!

Essential oils

Some have had success with homemade bug spray (we have used peppermint oil with water which  helped fend off the occasional mosquito here on the West Coast. Keeping in mind we don’t have the black fly or giant mosquito issues our friends back east have).

Want to make your own? Try this (you’ll need a 4 oz spray bottle):

  • 2 oz distilled water
  • 2 oz witch hazel
  • 40 drops peppermint essential oil

Make sure you give the bottle a good shake before using. Avoid spraying on your face (try spraying a washcloth and then dabbing your face). For kids aged two and younger, spray it on their clothes and not their skin.

Here’s another variation we like. Try mixing:

  • 15 drops lemongrass
  • 15 drops eucalyptus
  • 20 drops citronella

What to Do if Bitten

Reactions to bites usually consist of redness, itching, and swelling. This usually happens during the following two hours after a bite. Proper treatment includes ice and applying a topical steroid such as one per cent hydrocortisone. If you’re out in the woods and have no access to these medical helpers, look for some frog leaf. Typically a weed, frog leaf (otherwise known as plantain leaf) has medicinal properties that work well with drawing out toxins from bites. You’ll need to chew the leaf – make sure you can properly identify what it is! - and apply it to your skin.