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How to choose a natural bug spray that actually works

An in depth guide to natural bug sprays / insect repellents for you and your family.

Summer in Australia is intoxicating. The long, warm evenings are just beautiful. There is nothing more lovely than having dinner outside… or less messy! I do however have the genes where I could rent myself out as insect repellent party hire – If I’m in the room, no-one else gets bitten! I’ve also unfortunately passed this talent onto my two young children.

In Sydney where we live, we are lucky not to have to be concerned about many mosquito borne diseases, however Queensland’s Ross River fever has now been found on our northern beaches. Further afield, there’s Zika in South East Asia and South America as well as Dengue Fever and Malaria. In these areas, what may be a little bite can have dire consequences.

Choosing a non-toxic insect repellent / natural bug spray is tough. Putting something on our skin which repels mosquitos often carries a toxic load if we want it to work super effectively. Living where I do, without much risk of mosquito borne illnesses, I have the luxury to try scientifically less effective but natural products. However, in an area where there was a true infection risk, I feel the risk of catching a disease definitely outweighs the risk of using a stronger chemical.

In this post I’m going to explore how we can minimise the chances of being bitten in the first place, how to naturally reduce the mosquito numbers around your home, other forms of repellents, proven effective active ingredients in repellents and also include a recommended list.

No natural bug spray is 100% effective and all repellents have pros and cons. This is not a one size fits all product. Depending on the area you live or where you travel to, you may need different strengths of repellent accordingly.

Minimising the risk of getting mosquito bites in the first place

There are steps that can be taken to naturally limit your exposure to mosquitoes in the first place- and I don’t mean just staying inside! This way you don’t have to be as reliant on a chemical to repel them!

  • Cover up with light coloured clothing – long sleeves/ long trousers / tuck trousers into socks
  • Use fans over the top of an eating area / bed – ceiling fans or pedestal fans work brilliantly as with a breeze, the mosquito can’t land
  • Use fly screens on your windows
  • Use mosquito nets over beds / cots / pram / stroller or baby carrier

Getting rid of mosquito breeding grounds around your home

Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water so limit these reservoirs around your home:

  • Change water in a bird bath at least once a week
  • Fill large holes in trees with sand
  • Remove excess vegetation from your pond and stock with lots of fish
  • Don’t over water the garden
  • Cover containers that store water (including swimming pools!) so that mosquitoes can’t lay eggs.
Choosing A Natural Bug Spray Which Actually Works, Clean + Conscious

Babies

It is not advised to use insect repellent on babies under 6 months of age. Netting over strollers/ baby carriers and cots is the way to go.

Mosquito Repellents which have been shown in studies to either be toxic or ineffective

  • Bug Zappers – These have been shown to be ineffective and expensive. They kill beneficial bugs and may even attract more mosquitoes to the area.
  • Garden Insect Pesticide treatments– These don’t provide lasting protection and require more potent pesticides/ toxic chemicals than skin repellents.
  • Clip on repellents/ repellent bracelets – These can contain metofluthrin and allethrin which are more toxic than skin repellents and also pose an inhalation risk. Some contain citronella but have been shown to be ineffective, only giving mild protection directly around the band.
  • Repellent candles– These are less effective than skin treatments and pose an inhalation hazard.
  • Pure essential oils– These differ in effectiveness widely depending both on formulation and also the type of insect you are trying to deter. It is important to only use products formulated for use on skin and patch testing on a small area of skin first is essential.

Ingredients in bug spray – effective active ingredients

Oil of lemon Eucalyptus – Oil of lemon Eucalyptus oil which has had its active ingredient PMD concentrated is the most effective of the botanical ingredients and the only one which has undergone efficiency testing. Some studies have shown it to have almost the same effectiveness against mosquitoes and ticks as DEET, it just has to be applied more frequently. Given its natural source, it is definitely my favourite of the stronger options!

A 30% concentration provides up to 6 hours of mosquito and tick prevention. Recommended for use from 6+ months, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus can irritate lungs and is a possible allergen, so patch testing and roll-on application are highly recommended.

DEET – DEET is the classic active ingredient in insect repellents. It’s very powerful and very effective at keeping away not only mosquitoes but ticks, sand flies, fleas and ticks. It also melts some plastics, can damage fabrics and neurological symptoms have been reported!

I’ve always hated the idea of DEET for me and my young children. Surprisingly, the EWG actually says it isn’t as bad as some other alternatives and even goes as far as saying it was the best of the ‘active’ repellent ingredients, because it caused very few serious reactions. (I don’t know whether that says a lot about DEET or more about how scary the alternatives are!) I must admit, I am way more scared of malaria and Zika than I am of DEET, if I had to choose.

The EWG say products with over 30% DEET should never be used on anyone – adults or children. When looking for DEET based repellents to recommend, I’m afraid I couldn’t find any I would feel comfortable recommending, due to the addition of endocrine disrupting synthetic fragrances and triclosan.

Picaridin – This is a newer ingredient than DEET and whilst it promises to be safer with less adverse effects, it has also not been studied for as long either. It is odourless and non-irritating and as a bonus, does not melt plastic. I just wish it had been around longer so that we knew for sure that it was as safe as reported.

IR3535 – Whilst even the name sounds like the most unnatural thing in the world, this has been used for a long time in Europe and has a good safety profile – for a more toxic insect repellent. It is a serious eye irritant and can melt some plastics and damage fabrics.

Citronella – This is less effective than other repellent ingredients and frequent application may be necessary. It also is ineffective against some mosquitoes and may cause allergic skin reactions. 4.2% provides 1 hour of mosquito/ tick protection.

Botanical / Essential Oil Blends – There is very little actual testing that has been done on the effectiveness of essential oils as insect repellents. Some geranium oil and soybean oil mixtures have been shown to provide some lasting bug protection, however many of the products tested have been shown not to repel aggressive species of mosquito. Unfortunately, there is no assurance that a product actually works, they must be tried and tested with your local mosquito species.

Essential oil blends are often in much higher concentrations than they would normally be in a personal care product and so allergies can be serious. Frequent application is also necessary.

Using products properly

Given that we can’t necessarily avoid using a toxic ingredient or potential allergen, It is super important that the product is used properly to minimise exposure and risk.

– Apply the repellent sparingly

Don’t use sprays as they pose an inhalation risk- we definitely don’t want these toxins going into little lungs!

– Do not use on cuts/ irritated skin

– Do not apply to areas around the eyes or mouth

Do not apply to the lips/ hands/ fingers of young children as they put their hands in their mouth

– When applying repellent to a child, apply it on your hands and then rub them onto the child. Avoid hands and mouth and use sparingly around ears.

Wash hands after applying repellent

– When returning indoors, wash repellent off skin with soap and water.

Avoid sunscreen/ insect repellent combinations: Studies have shown that combining sunscreens and repellents leads to increased absorption of the repellent ingredients.

OUR RECOMMENDATIONS

In an area with no risk of insect borne disease

For those of us who live in an area where the worst case scenario of being bitten by mosquitoes is having a toddler covered in itchy bites who can’t sleep (A pretty awful scenario none the less!) We do have the luxury of trying out essential oil blends/ natural products. They definitely don’t have the toxic active ingredients that the heavy duty repellents have, though as they have essential oils in them they carry more allergy risk, so it’s important to do a patch test on a small bit of skin first.

Natural bug spray / insect repellents vary in their effectiveness in general and even with different species of mosquito. I recommend giving the following natural bug sprays a go.

Wanderlightly – BUG BALM

Eco By Sonya – Citronella Personal Outdoor Spray

Raw Nature – Bug Repellent Stick – Just Bug Off

In an area where mosquito/ insect borne disease is a risk

Let’s face it, in this scenario, getting bitten by an infected mosquito is way more dangerous and scary than what could be in the repellent. This doesn’t mean that you can’t minimise how much you have to use and be careful of your repellent choice as well as using it minimally and appropriately. If I was in an area like this, I’d be using the following on myself and my family. I’d also make sure to do everything I could to minimise our risk of being bitten in the first place with protective clothing etc.

Bug Grrr Off

This natural bug spray is made in Australia and uses Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus. The company claims it gives total protection against mosquitoes for 6 hours. Studies have apparently also shown that it doesn’t absorb into the skin easily, making it a much safer option out of the stronger choices. The company says this can be used on babies from 6 months.

When the inevitable mosquito bite does occur

Taking out Gold in our Insect Repellent / Salve 2021 Awards was DermaGen by Botanical Chemist – Manuka Oil Balm . This is the ultimate mosquito bite antidote which not only soothes the itch, but also contains Manuka oil which acts as both an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, protecting a heavily itched bite from turning nasty.

Wishing you a happy itch-free Summer!

Another summer essential – make sure to check out our Guide on ‘How to Choose the Best Zinc Oxide Sunscreen‘ and ‘Tick Repellent – Is There A Natural Alternative?

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