It’s the height of summer and prime time for family camping vacations. That also means it’s the height of bug season. It can be confusing trying to figure out what bug repellents are best for keeping bug bites at bay for your family—how bad is DEET really, what the heck is permethrin, and do essential oils really work? Read on for more on how to choose the best bug repellent.

A new report from Made Safe called Bug Repellent: What’s In It? is right on time to rescue you from having to sort this out on your own. It examines common active ingredients in conventional insect repellent and their impacts on human health and the environment, and includes a consumer guide on more natural options.

So without further ado, here are ten takeaways for your summer adventures.

Disclosure: This post was written by Cassidy Randal of Made Safe, America’s first certification to screen out known toxic chemicals in consumer products across store aisles, from baby bottles and bedding to personal care, cleaners, and more. Leah Segedie, the Creator of Mamavation sits on their board. The brand discussed below has no affiliation with Bookieboo LLC or Mamavation.

1. Insect Repellents are Made up of Two Types of Ingredients

    • Active ingredient are the active repelling chemicals and must appear on the label, and
    • Inert ingredients, which are everything else in the products and can be all kinds of things from solvents and preservatives to anti-caking or foaming agents and fragrance, and are not listed on the label.

2. Use DEET With Caution

  •  One of the most commonly-used active ingredients in bug repellent.
  • Linked to skin irritation, neurotoxicity, and shown to cross the placenta.
  • Shows up in groundwater, surface water, and drinking water.

3. Watch for Cyfluthrin

  • Active ingredient.
  • Linked to neurotoxicity.
  • Harmful to aquatic invertebrates, fish, and honeybees.

4. Watch for Pyrethroids

  • A class of chemicals used as active ingredients.
  • A class of chemicals linked to neurotoxicity, some have been linked to endocrine disruption, and some have been classified as possible carcinogens.
  • Read more on chemicals of concern in bug repellent.

5. Some Inert Ingredients Can Be Harmful

The EPA has approved approximately 3,000 chemicals as inert ingredients including some that are harmful chemicals like naphthalene (linked to cancer), xylene (linked to depression of the nervous system), and triethanolamine (linked to respiratory problems and liver and bladder cancer in animal studies).

6. Avoid Mixing Products Such as Chemical Sunscreen and Bug Sprays

  • The sunscreen chemical oxybenzone has been shown to enhance the absorption rate of DEET. 

7. Some Plants Have Pharmacological and Biological Properties That Make Plant Extracts Effective Insect Repellent, including:

  • Citronella,
  • Clove oil,
  • Geraniol,
  • Lemongrass,
  • Lemon eucalyptus,
  • Linalool,
  • Neem, and
  • Thyme.

Read more on plant-based alternatives and other tips to keep bugs at bay. 

8. Using Essential Oil Blends as Bug Repellents Requires   Using a Carrier Oil

  • Carrier oils slow evaporation so that the mixture repels insects for longer, as well as dilutes the potency of essential oils.
  • Coconut and andiroba oils both contain unsaturated fatty acids and natural emulsifiers that help volatile essential oils evaporate much more slowly.
  • If you’re planning to mix your own bug repellent, we recommend caution and a lot of research before embarking!

9. MADE SAFE has Certified the First-Ever Bug Repellent Made Entirely With Safe Ingredients:

*MADE SAFE does not test for efficacy. We examine ingredients for human health and environmental harm and we don’t permit pesticides. This means that any approved products take a natural approach to bug repellant which may work for casual settings to diminish bites, but it cannot prevent diseases; there may be situations in which you prefer conventional bug repellent.

10. Choose the Repellent That’s Right For Your Needs

Knowing your area and if you are at risk for a mosquito-borne or tick-borne illness can help you make the right bug repellent choice for you and your family. Go to Consumer Reports’ Guide to Mosquito and Tick Diseases for information for your area.

With the rise of Zika virus and concern for other mosquito-borne diseases, Made Safe recognizes there is a time and place for the use of bug repellant products that would not pass our screening process. We urge people to become informed and stay on top of advice from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

This post was written by Cassidy Randall, Director at Made Safe. Leah Segedie, the Creator of Mamavation sits on their board.

MADE SAFE™ (Made With Safe IngredientsTM) is America’s first certification to screen out known toxic chemicals in consumer products across store aisles, from baby bottles and bedding to personal care, cleaners, and more. MADE SAFE, a nonprofit, makes it possible for consumers to easily find products that are made without known harmful chemicals while also offering brands and retailers a road map to making and selling safer products. Founded by Amy Ziff with a mission to change the way products are made in America and around the world, the certification scrutinizes ingredients to avoid using materials linked to known human health harm. Consumers should always follow manufacturer guidelines for use when using any products. For more information, visit www.madesafe.org.

Stock image via Fairfax County Flickr

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Megan McClain

Megan McClain

Megan is a former journalist that is now freelances while raising her two sons and a sun-worshipping chihuahua in Southern California. Her personal blog, Sunshine Wonderland, chronicles her life and shares ideas on doing One Small Thing to change the world and your health.