Mosquitos are one of the deadliest creatures on Earth, and are responsible for the death of one million people each year through malaria infection as well as other diseases carried by the insect including the dengue and Zika viruses, yellow fever, encephalitis and many more.
While UK residents are unlikely to contract any of these diseases unless travelling overseas, the skin irritation of a mosquito bite is enough to scare some people into staying indoors all summer, not to mention other pests like ticks, midges, leeches and so on.
If you’re travelling to a tropical region affected by the diseases mentioned above, it’s especially important to protect yourself from mosquitos.
Insect repellents seem a sensible answer to the problem of bug bites, but how safe are these chemicals and how effective are the natural alternatives?
Are Insect Repellents Toxic?
The major ingredient to look out for in bug repellent is DEET.
Developed by the U.S. government to deal with World War II jungle warfare, DEET (aka N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) works as a neurotoxin on bugs, blocking their ability to smell us and therefore bite us. A controversial substance, there is some debate about DEET’s safety for use on humans.
The chemical has been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is recommended by the British government for anyone travelling to malaria infected regions.
The NHS, however, has expressed concerns over the possible toxic effects of DEET on humans.
While it appears that DEET is safe to use occasionally and in low concentrations, regular use may pose more of a health risk.
A 1980s study by the Everglades National Park found that a quarter of employees using DEET on a regular basis experienced symptoms including rashes, skin irritation, nausea, headaches, sleepiness and impaired cognitive function, dizziness, breathing problems and numb or burning lips.
A Duke University pharmacologist also found that DEET exposed rats suffered from brain cell death and behavioural changes.
He suggested that while acute reactions to the chemical are rare, there may be a build up of less obvious symptoms that get attributed to other sources.
DEET happens to be a highly effective insect repellent, so if you do decide that the reliability of the chemical is worth the potential risks, go for a lower concentration product.
Anything from 10-30% DEET is thought to be reasonably safe and effective for occasional use.
A Natural Alternative?
A couple of natural insect repellents have come on the market in recent years, while others are age old remedies. Certain plants and essential oils like citronella, lemongrass and lavender have long been used to combat biting insects.
One chemical that has been shown to rival DEET for effectiveness in clinical trials is oil of lemon eucalyptus. Actually, a chemical found in this plant oil called p-menthane-3,8-diol (PMD) is the active ingredient in many natural insect repellents and repels disease carrying mosquitoes as well as DEET does.
A synthetic version of PMD is often created in a lab; both the synthetic version and the plant-extracted version are sold in ‘natural’ insect repellents.
Both versions are thought to be safe, although long term studies haven’t yet been done on the effects of the synthetic version. So far, eye irritation is the only known adverse effect of the chemical.
Best Natural Insect Repellents in the UK
A variety of insect repellent alternatives are currently on the market, some using traditional botanicals, while others incorporate newly discovered chemicals such as PMD.
While these products may be ‘natural’ to varying degrees, they should still be used with safety precautions in mind.
Let’s have a look at some of the market leaders in the natural insect repellent world today:
1. Para’kito All Natural Deet Free Anti Mosquito & Tick Repellent Spray
Para’kito specialise in natural insect repellent products. Made in France, this is completely natural product that lists very few ingredients.
The main ingredient of the Para’kito All Natural Mosquito & Tick Repellent Spray is oil of lemon eucalyptus, though Para’kito claims to use a completely natural form of the oil, rather than the synthetic form of PMD.
Instead of PMD, this spray contains naturally sourced PMD rich botanical oil (PMDRBO), extracted directly from the eucalyptus tree. This makes it not only an effective insect repellent but a genuine natural alternative.
PMDRBO is a great choice for the environment too; PMD in all forms is biodegradable, but according to Para’kito, the production process of the PMDRBO version actually supports healthy tree growth and maintenance.
The packaging for this spray is made from sugarcane fibre, making both the product and the packaging eco-friendly and renewable.
While the long-term effects of PMD are still uncertain, it appears that it is indeed gentle enough for use on children and Para’kito claims that their spray can be used on children older than 6 months.
Despite this, care should always be taken when applying insect repellent and always avoid contact with the eyes, as PMD can cause serious eye irritation.
A bit more expensive than the other formulas reviewed here, the spray is effective for 8 hours against mosquitoes and 4 hours against ticks. This product can be used safely in tropical or temperate regions worldwide. It is also animal-testing free.
2. Incognito All Natural Deet Free Anti Mosquito Insect Repellent Spray
If you like to support local business, the British made Incognito brand isn’t a bad way to go. The company specialises in insect repellent products including sprays, roll-ons and combos such as anti-mosquito shampoos and sunscreens.
The active ingredient used in the Incognito Insect Repellent Spray is PMD, although as it’s not labelled as a plant derived version, it’s likely to be synthetically created.
While Incognito advertises itself as a fully natural alternative, it does include some synthetic chemicals; most PMD is produced synthetically in a lab.
According to Incognito, this spray is just as effective as DEET, and it certainly seems as if they have some evidence to back up this claim, given the clinical trials suggesting that PMD is effective at preventing mosquito bites for up to 12 hours.
It should also be noted that just because a product is ‘natural,’ that doesn’t necessarily make it safe.
Despite the brand’s claim that this spray is safe for use on children older than 3 months, it does contain some harsh ingredients which could be irritating to children.
The main ingredient is alcohol, which can irritate the skin and can sting when applied over cuts or abrasions. This spray also includes camphor, which is known to be toxic, especially when ingested.
High doses of camphor can also be irritating when applied to the skin and may cause seizures.
If using this product on children, be very careful not to get it on their hands or anything they might put in their mouths.
This spray should also be kept away from eyes, as PMD is also known to cause eye irritation.
Incognito has a good reputation as a sustainable and environmentally friendly manufacturer and all of its products as certified by the Vegan Society.
They also donate 10% of their profits to charity, making them a good option for people who are not only looking for a relatively natural insect repellent, but who also want to support a great business model.
3. The Body Source Mosquito Repellent Bracelets
The Body Source have come up with an interesting alternative to slathering your whole body in insect repellent: why not just wear a colourful accessory to do the same job?
The Body Source Mosquito Repellent Bracelets are a natural version of the DEET infused bracelets that were released as a safer way of using the chemical.
These bracelets claim to contain only 100% natural essential oils of Geraniol (actually an essential oil component), Citronella and Lemongrass, applied to a plastic one-size-fits-all bracelet band.
These bands are a great alternative for people who suffer from sensitive skin, as there is minimal skin contact with the repellent, compared to spray or roll-on products.
They can be a good option for babies too, as they can be attached to prams or cots, and do not need to be directly applied to the skin at all.
The bracelets come in a range of bright colours, making them appealing to kids who may otherwise be reluctant to coat themselves in stinky lotions or sprays.
Unfortunately, it’s also kids who are most likely to fiddle or play around with the bracelets, which can easily be removed and lost.
Another drawback is that one bracelet may not be enough to protect your whole body from mosquitoes and, depending on the severity of the bug infestation in your area, you may need to wear multiple bands on your wrists and ankles.
Each bracelet is supposed to last for up to 250 hours (10 days) of use, and some individual storage bags are included to keep the bands ‘fresh’ when not in use.
Especially if and your family you need to wear multiple bands at a time, you will potentially be going through a lot of plastic very quickly, which is not an especially environmentally-friendly solution to the problem of mosquitoes.
Nevertheless, they are probably less irritating to the skin than many insect repellents and can be used when swimming or wading through swampy terrain, thanks to the waterproof materials.
4. Avon Skin So Soft Original Dry Oil Body Spray with Jojoba
This body spray isn’t as natural as it could be, but it’s DEET-free and is very popular, so it deserves a mention.
It uses citronellol, which is a naturally occurring lemon-like scent that works as a natural insect repellent. Skin So Soft is especially popular as a midge repellent and was apparently used by Mel Gibson while filming Braveheart in Scotland.
While this product is DEET-free, it does contain some other ingredients that you may want to avoid.
These include Isopropyl Palmitate which can clog pores when used in large quantities and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), which is a preservative that is generally considered safe when applied topically but is somewhat controversial as a food ingredient.
You spray Skin So Soft on damp skin after showering or taking a bath. It isn’t too greasy and it absorbs well into the skin, so it doesn’t leave marks on your clothes.
This spray is effective at keeping mosquitos and midges away without having an unpleasant or overpowering smell.
It doubles as a skin conditioner, leaving your skin softer thanks to the moisturising effects of the jojoba oil.
Avon Skin So Soft Original Dry Oil Body Spray comes in a 150 ml bottle with a convenient pump dispenser.
5. Naissance Citronella Essential Oil
Citronella is a type of grass originally native to Sri Lanka, but now also grown in tropical regions including Indonesia, Vietnam and Central America.
It’s a common ingredient in many insect-repelling products, but unfortunately this essential oil is often mixed with toxic ingredients in mosquito coils and incense sticks.
A pure oil, such as the Naissance Citronella Essential Oil is a great way to get the benefits of the oil, without any of the questionable additions.
Versatility is the major advantage of an essential oil, which can be incorporated as a raw ingredient in any number of DIY products, as well as used on its own.
To keep insects out of your living space, put a few drops into an oil burner or electronic diffuser with some water and leave to diffuse throughout the room.
Essential oils such as citronella can also be applied to the skin, although they do need to be diluted to about 1-3% in a carrier oil.
While adults can handle a higher concentration of essential oils, a lower dilution of around 1% should always be used for children. Neem, Soybean and Coconut oil are all potential insect repellers in their own right and are suitable for mixing with essential oils.
One drawback of this product is that you will definitely need other equipment in order to use it, such as a diffuser or a carrier oil.
This can be a little inconvenient during travel, but it’s always possible to pre-mix an essential oil dilution in a small bottle to carry around with you.
For even greater effects, try combining citronella with other insect repellent essential oils, such as lavender, peppermint and eucalyptus.
Travelling to Moderate and High-Risk Areas
If you’re travelling to a part of the world with where mosquitos carry diseases such as malaria, you will need to take particular care. Malaria is found in over 100 countries, mainly in the tropics (not in Europe or the UK).
The NHS have a useful page with advice for travellers to these countries here.
Applying mosquito repellent is just one of the methods you should employ to keep mosquitos at bay in tropical countries. You should also put a mosquito net over your bed and wear clothing that covers your arms and legs when possible.
Not all of the products mentioned here will suffice if you’re travelling to a high-risk area. The NHS only recommends using mosquito repellent that contains one of the following three ingredients:
- Picaridin (20%)
- Lemon eucalyptus extract (PMD)
Lemon eucalyptus extract (PMD) can be considered natural since it is extracted from the gum eucalyptus tree. Picaridin is synthetically made by chemists, but is modelled after a naturally occurring chemical found in black pepper plants.
If you really want to make the most out of your summer and the outdoor offerings that come with it, make sure that you are taking precautions against mosquitoes.
To protect you and our family, you’ll want to ensure that you get a good balance between using natural products and choosing the right option for you. It is worth taking the time to research which products will fit in best with your lifestyle and your principles.
If we had to recommend just one of these products it would be Para’kito Natural DEET free Mosquito & Tick repellent spray as it’s one of the safest and most natural insect repellents on the market at the moment.
Naturaler is a UK website full of tips and recommendations for living a more eco-friendly, chemical-free and natural lifestyle.