With Zika and other mosquito-spread diseases in the headlines everyday it’s no wonder so many of us are looking for ways to protect ourselves against these blood–sucking bugs. But if you have concerns about the insect repellant DEET you’re far from alone.
Today we’re going to introduce you to yarrow tincture, a powerful natural bug repellent and a potential alternative to this troubling bug spray. But first let’s take a closer look at DEET and several other alternatives to this popular bug spray.
Delving deeper into DEET
First of all there’s no question DEET—N, N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide—works. (Although it may not be working as well as it once did, more on that later.) In fact it’s likely the best mosquito repellent ever manufactured by man.
But that efficiency may come at a cost.
The EPA says DEET is safe and encourages its use. But DEET doesn’t come without controversy. The insect repellent has been linked to some serious side effects, especially in the most vulnerable among us, our children.
There have been reports of kids that have been doused in DEET bug sprays experiencing breathing problems and seizures. And a study published in the journal Human and Experimental Toxicology linked DEET to respiratory issues, seizures and brain damage (encephalopathy) in some children.
In an earlier study the effects of DEET were observed on employees of the Everglades National Park a quarter of the people tested reported side effects including…
- Numb or burning lips
- Difficult concentrating
- Skin irritation
Troubling results of DEET animal experiments
In animal experiments DEET was shown to affect the central nervous system. In one study, animals exposed to the equivalent of a human dose did more poorly on muscle coordination tests. And according to a Duke University researcher, exposure to the chemical caused brain-cell death and behavioral changes in
And although the CDC says DEET shouldn’t be harmful if you follow all the directions on the packaging, they do also admit that some users can experience side effects…
“The EPA advises you wash the spray away as soon as you return indoors and to avoid breathing it in. Most DEET side effects appear to occur when people don’t wash the bug spray off of their skin soon enough or if someone reapplies “too soon.”
DEET has a pungent odor many find unpleasant, is oily, and can dissolve or damage plastic and some other synthetic materials.
Study finds DEET becoming less effective
Researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine uncovered evidence that DEET is becoming less effective. In a study published in the journal PLoS One scientists found the some mosquitoes and flies are now able to ignore the scent of DEET three hours after being exposed to it.
In a “nature always makes a way” situation that eerily echoes what we’ve seen with antibiotic resistant bacteria, some insects—including the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry Zika—are now being born with a genetic variation in their aroma receptors that makes them no longer sensitive to the smell of the chemical repellent.
Other mosquito repellents that ward off Zika virus
As the weather turns warm we all want to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. But some folks who have legitimate concerns about the potential neurotoxicity of DEET simply aren’t comfortable using it.
Rather than go totally unprotected and risk getting sick (however slim the chances are of being infected with the Zika virus) they want to know if there are any alternatives.
And the answer is yes, you can avoid DEET and still get good protection. In fact, the CDC supports the use of several other repellents to ward off the Zika virus and other mosquito-transmitted diseases.
Let’s take a quick look at each of them…
Picaridin is a synthetic chemical-based repellent as well, but it may be a better option for those who want to avoid DEET. It’s essentially a synthetic version of piperine, the family of plants that we get black pepper from.
Picaridin, which doesn’t have a strong odor and isn’t oily like DEET, is recommended by both the CDC and the World Health Organization. It’s believed that it works by blocking the mosquito’s ability to sense the carbon dioxide you release when breathing, making the bug unable to locate you.
Picaridin doesn’t have the same eye and skin irritating effects of DEET or the neurotoxicity concerns. It reportedly does as good a job at repelling bugs as DEET. In fact, according to our friends at the Environmental Working Group Picaridin may even repel bugs longer than DEET or IR3535 (see below) because it evaporates from your skin more slowly.
3-[N-Butyl-N-acetyl]-aminopropionic acid, ethyl ester—or IR3535 for short—was developed in the 1970s, but wasn’t registered to be used in the United States until 1999.
IR3535 is actually a synthetic version of the amino acid B-alanine.
It can be highly irritating to the eyes, and like DEET can damage plastics. But it doesn’t have the same unpleasant odor as DEET and doesn’t have the same neurotoxicity concerns.
Testing has shown that IR3535 is as effective as DEET against the Culex quinquefasciatus mosquito, but at a 20 percent concentration was slightly less effective against the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito than DEET at a 15 to 30 percent concentration.
The Environmental Working Group says, “IR3535 is a good DEET alternative with many of the same advantages and fewer disadvantages.”
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE/PMD):
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE or para-menthane-diol/PMD) is the only plant-derived repellent on the CDC list of approved ingredients to repel disease carrying mosquitoes such as the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti.
Originally an extract of the eucalyptus tree, OLE smells like menthol and has a similar cooling sensation. OLE works as well as a 15-20 percent concentration of DEET. But keep in mind studies have not been completed on its use for children, so if your child is under three it shouldn’t be used.
If you prefer a botanically-based ingredient OLE may be a good option for you.
Click here to learn more about Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, including a simple recipe for making your own homemade repellent.
Other effective natural insect repellents
While Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is the only natural-based insect repellent recommended by the CDC it may not be the only effective botanical repellent.
A number of plants, and in some cases essential oils made from them, can help repel a variety of bugs including…
- Rose-scented monarda
- Tea tree
But keep in mind if you are pregnant, or at risk for mosquito spread illnesses, you should take the strongest precautions possible. Essential oils are not an effective solution in these situations.
Consider yarrow for repelling bugs
But folks looking for another alternative to chemical-based insect repellents might also want to consider yarrow. Yarrow—a long-stemmed plant with feathery fern-link leaves and small clusters of daisy-like flowers—grows in the wild in temperate areas in the Northern Hemisphere.
Yarrow has not yet been proven to repel the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito, but this ancient plant (archaeologists uncovered yarrow in a 62,000 year old Neanderthal cave) does have a long history as a natural remedy and a successful insect repellent.
Also, keep in mind that yarrow is a natural solution, which means it can’t be patented. As a result there aren’t a bunch of expensive published studies on its effectiveness as an insect repellent.
If a large corporation does decide there’s a market for it—or more specifically a synthetic clone of it—that could change one day. But for now we need to rely on the knowledge of herbal experts who have extensive experience working with this ancient insect repellent.
According to author and herbalist Susan Weed of Wise Woman Herbal, yarrow was found to be even more effective than DEET at repelling ticks and mosquitoes in research conducted by the U.S. Army. However, it was NOT as long-lasting so it needs to be reapplied a lot more often.
In fact, Weed suggests reapplying yarrow tincture as often as every 20 to 30 minutes when you’re in an area with a lot of bugs and once every one to two hours in areas with less insects.
You can buy yarrow tinctures in natural food stores and online. However, store-bought products are made from the dried plants aren’t as potent or effective. If you want to give yarrow a try, to get the most insect-repelling benefits you might want to try your hand at making your own.
Don’t worry, it’s easier than it sounds.
Here’s what you’ll need…
- A small jar with a tight fitting lid
- 100 proof Vodka (some substitute witch hazel or vinegar, but keep in mind you’re spraying it on your skin)
- Freshly picked yarrow plant – root, stems, leaves and flowers (look for the white variety if you can find them. See the photo to the right. You can also grow yarrow in your own garden.)
- Rinse off the root of the yarrow lightly with pure water to remove dirt.
- Remove the flowers and buds and set aside.
- Chop the stems, leaves and root.
- Place the chopped plant, flowers and buds into the jar filling to the top.
- Fill to the top with vodka and cap tightly. (Top off the liquid the next day.)
- Place in a spot out of direct sunlight for at least six weeks.
- Our out the liquid straining out the plant parts.
- Put into a spray bottle and use as needed.
Have you tried a botanical-based insect repellent before? If so what was your experience? Share it with is in the comments below.
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