I LOVE camping. Each summer, Andrew and I try and get into the woods as often as we can. From multi-day hiking trips in the back country to portaging deep into the woods, we love to get as far away from roads as we possibly can. Unfortunately this also drives us deep into bug country! And unfortunately, I could win a bug attraction contest. I get swarmed and then get crazy reactions that leave me with swollen, angry red bumps for weeks. And although I could use this as a tool to 'let go' in meditation (yeah right!), I've instead tried to create the best all-natural bug spray I can and deter the little jerks. Not only does it smell pretty good, it actually works really well. So if you're bug candy like me, try making a batch for your next outdoor adventure!
Conventional Bug Sprays
By far the most common bug spray ingredient is DEET. Health Canada, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) all state that when used properly DEET is safe. However, some animal studies have shown that it can affect the nervous system and some people report rashes, dizziness and headaches from normal use. In general, DEET isn't the worst chemical out there, but some things to note are that stronger doesn't mean better and that over-applying increases the risk of negative side effects. Consumer Reports did a review of the best repellants and they found that 15% DEET was actually more effective than higher concentrations.
According to the EWG (Environmental Working Group), there are other chemicals on the market, like Picaridin that are also effective and that don't carry the neurotoxicity concerns of DEET. However, many of the commercial products that use picaridin also contain fragrance, phthalates and other synthetic ingredients to make them smell good and to extend their shelf-life. So, you might also be getting hormone disruptors and skin irritants along with the bug protection.
All Natural Bug Repellants
I've tried many homemade recipes over the years and some have been complete disasters. I've literally watched bugs swarm a patch of skin I just doused with my homemade spray and have had to resort to the 'pacing around the fire non-stop' strategy! This year I've come across a lot of great information about the most effective natural ingredients and how to combine them to make a more powerful DIY recipe.
There are many natural oils that have bug repelling properties. Neem oil, soybean oil and catnip essential oil have all been found to deter a variety of biting insects. However, the star of this recipe is going to be Lemon Eucalyptus essential oil. High in a compound called citronellal which most of us have connected to citronella essential oil and I'm sure we've all seen the bug candles, shampoos and lotions with citronella as their active ingredient. However, lemon eucalyptus essential oil is 75% citronellal where citronella essential oil is only about 8%!!! Clearly, lemon eucalyptus oil is a much better bet. In studies that looked at the effectiveness of natural ingredients, lemon eucalyptus oil with enhanced concentration of a compound called PMD was found to be as effective as DEET against mosquitos and ticks. However, PMD is different from the unprocessed tree oil which this recipe uses. But, one study that compared PMD to lemon eucalyptus essential oil found that the oil lasted longer than the concentrate. And, there's another star ingredient in this recipe that's going to boost that staying power even more!
One big reason why natural bug sprays often don't work as well as chemical counterparts is their staying power. Essential oils are volatile and so they don't stay on the skin for very long. However, there's a compound in vanilla called vanillin that helps to slow down that volatility extending the effectiveness of the essential oils. Cool, right? By adding vanilla extract to our recipe, we increase the effectiveness of the lemon eucalyptus oil.
Before you Spray
Nature time to me is sacred and I'll deal with the nuisance of bugs to be able to be immersed. However, I am cautious about disease-carrying species. Ticks carry lyme disease and many others and mosquitos carry West Nile, malaria, dengue and now, zika. If you're travelling to tropical places, research where and at what times of day the bugs that carry the disease are most active. For example, the type of mosquito that carries malaria is active at dawn and dusk.
If you're in a bug zone, cover up as best you can. Wear long, loose layers and choose light-coloured clothing (mosquitos like dark colours). If it's a bug heavy time of year, invest in a bug jacket, they're amazing and make a huge difference. If you're travelling to a tropical region, bring one and consider a mosquito net for your sleeping area. If you're in the woods, avoid ticks by tucking your pants into your socks or shoes and do a tick check with a friend. Look on your skin and on your clothing and come prepared with tweezers to remove them if necessary.
1/2 cup witch hazel
1 tsp glycerine
1 tsp vanilla extract
50 drops lemon eucalyptus oil (NOT blue eucalyptus, it must be lemon eucalyptus for the citronellal)
15 drops lemon essential oil
10 drops lavender essential oil (or any essential oil you like the scent of)
Add all ingredients to a spray bottle and seal tightly.
Store in a cool place and shake well before use.
Note: Essential oils are strong. Do not use on children under 5. Test patch a small area of skin on your arm and don't use if there's a reaction.