Natural Insect Repellents
By: Linda TȟióleuŋWíŋ Bishop
When I was 7 months pregnant, I went to a powwow in central South Dakota. It was early August, and 104®F with 65% humidity. I was fine…really. I was perfectly comfortable sitting in the shade, sipping lemonade, and spraying myself with ice water every few minutes. Then towards evening, my whole world turned into a painful and maddeningly irritating hell on Earth.Within minutes of the sun setting, I became a human pincushion. Mosquitos the size of eaglesswarmed every centimeter of exposed flesh – and even started biting me through my clothes. I swatted, smacked, screamed and cried in frustration. Everyone around me watched in curious horror and unspoken bemusement as I went completely mad. After mere moments that felt like an eternity, I was rushed into a waiting car – not necessarily to rescue me from an abyss of biting, vampiric insects, but more to avoid any further embarrassment to those around me.Strangely enough, I was the only person at the entire powwow who seemed to be having a problem. That was the day I realized that I was a proverbial “mosquito magnet.”
Some part of me always suspected that I was highly attractive to the mosquito clan. There is, in fact, scientific evidence to support the idea that some people attract them more than others. According to Dr. Jerry Butler, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, “One in 10 people are highly attractive to mosquitoes.” There are many reasons why this might be the case. “Scientists do know that genetics account for a whopping 85% of our susceptibility to mosquito bites” (Web MD). Along with genetics, one’s cholesterol level, acid levels, diet, and body temperature also contribute. Those who give off larger amounts of carbon dioxide – such as pregnant women – are also predisposed to mosquito attacks.
Our warming planet means that mosquitos are becoming more plentiful and certainly more widespread. This increases the prevalence of mosquito borne-illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever, West-Nile virus, and St. Louis encephalitis, among many other viruses. Worldwide, over three million people die of mosquito-borne diseases each year.
So the vitally important question becomes, what can we do to avoid getting bit?
The most popular solution is DEET (N,N-Diethyl-3-methylbenzamide), which was originally developed as a pesticide by the US Army. DEET is considered the standard in repelling pests, and it is included in most common repellents like OFF!, REPEL, Cutter, and 3M. However, DEET is widely known to be toxic in even moderate quantities, particularly for children and pregnant women. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Case reports of toxicity from DEET exposure have been documented in the medical literature, and range in severity from mild skin irritation to death.” Additionally, researchers at the University of Angers in France, found that “DEET is not simply a behavior-modifying chemical but also inhibits the activity of a key central nervous system enzyme, acetycholinesterase, in both insects and mammals,” thus classifying it as a neurotoxin. Let me repeat that…DEET is a known NEUROTOXIN.
Thankfully, there are natural alternatives that are incredibly effective. Certain plant-based oils, for example, are safe and potent. One of my favorite recipes is to mix 10 drops each of cinnamon, lemon eucalyptus, castor, and citronella essential oils and add 4 tablespoons of olive or vegetable oil. Alternatively, one may add witch hazel or apple cider vinegar in place of the olive/vegetable oil. If the smell of these oils combined is too much for you, feel free to eliminate one or more, since any of the above-mentioned oils are useful as a repellent. Lemon juice, vanillaextract, pennyroyal, rose geranium, and lavender oil are also useful ingredients in this recipe and you can add or subtract them according to your own personal preferences. Remember, just as everyone’s body chemistry is different, the perfect natural insect repellent will be unique foreach individual. Mix, match, and experiment with a variety of essential oils and ratios.
While it is very difficult to make your own essential oils at home, you can make great plant-based repellent oils. There are a number of plants you can use for this…and I will let you in on one of my best kept secrets. There is a foul-smelling, annoying and prolific weed that invades people’s gardens throughout most of the United States and in to Canada. Of course, this means that I LOVE it. Dyssodia papposa, also known as fetid marigold, is one of the best insect-repelling plants around. Years ago, I was driven to tears because this pungent weed was invading my garden so badly that almost nothing would thrive. However, I began to notice that I never, and I mean NEVER, got bit by mosquitos at any time of day or night … as long as I was sitting in my garden surrounded by fetid marigold. Add one cup of fetid marigold to 1 ½ cups of olive oil. Heat on low for two to four hours and then strain. Apply to exposed skin as liberally as desired. You may even wish to add any of the aforementioned essential oils for extra protection.Have trouble finding fetid marigold? Try Monarda fistulosa (beebalm), Nepeta cataria (catnip) or Agastache foeniculum (blue hyssop).
One last thing…in preventing mosquito bites, it is vital to use common sense. When I visit areas with lots of biting insects, like the rainforests of Guatemala, I will sometimes spray a DEET orpicaridin-based repellent on the outside of my clothing, thus avoiding any contact with my skin. Then, I will use a natural repellent on both exposed and unexposed skin, as a double-defense against bites. Try not to go outside at dawn and dusk, when mosquitos are most active, but if you do, wear light-colored clothing. By the way, you can even put natural repellants in your hair –natural repellents smell great, will keep mosquitos at bay, and they even work to condition and add shine to your locks!
Our ancestors burned sage (Artemisia spp.), wormwood, and even sweetgrass to keep biting insects at bay. This is still a great practice when you are camping at powwows or on fishing and hunting trips. Remember, multiple defenses are the best way to keep from getting bit. You DO NOT have to expose your family or yourself to neurotoxic chemicals in order to be protected.With a little common sense and some help from the plant nations, you can go to powwows, have cookouts, and sit next to your sweetheart on a blanket at the lake – without the fear of bloodsucking insects. (I can’t, unfortunately, help you repel bloodsucking insects of the human persuasion.) Ba-dum-tshhh!