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Image: Male mosquito
Wikipedia
Prolonged exposure to DEET, an ingredient commonly found in insect repellent, can hinder brain functioning.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 5/27/2008 12:46:04 PM ET 2008-05-27T16:46:04

Memorial Day has come and gone. Now we can wear white without ridicule — and prepare ourselves to take on summer pests. Between Lyme-ridden ticks, determined bees and the mosquito’s itchy bite, the warmest months are a buggy booty trap.

I’ve already been attacked. It’s not even June and I’m sporting the first mosquito bite of the season. Situated on the lower knuckle of my left pinky finger, it’s impossibly unscratchable. If this is foreshadowing what’s to come, my shins and arms will look like they always do during summer — speckled with puffy, itchy red dots. I’ll try everything not to scratch: herbal lotions, cool showers, Buddhist breathing techniques. Maybe they’ll work, but some of those bites will inevitably end up battered and bleeding.

But maybe this year I’ll wise up and finally use a preventive measure to keep insects away before they begin sucking my blood. The good news is that we’re not required to submit to the will of hungry mosquitoes or ticks; there are other options — options that do not necessitate the use of DEET.

A popular insect repellent, DEET (or N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) has been used for decades to ward off a variety of pesky — and dangerous — bugs. But the compound is less than perfect. Mohamed Abou-Donia, Ph.D., a pharmacologist from Duke University Medical Center, found that prolonged exposure to DEET can hinder brain functioning. “Damage to these areas could result in problems with muscle coordination, muscle weakness, walking or even memory and cognition,” he said in a 2002 report. The study notes that limiting exposure to repellents that contain DEET and using products with less than a 30 percent concentration of the substance “does not appear to be harmful,” but warns against using DEET if you are taking any medication or using it on infants.

Summer may be buggy, but life is short. Why risk using something that “does not appear to be harmful”? Wouldn’t it be safer to keep insects away using methods that are “definitely not dangerous”? Here’s how:

Scent yourself wisely
Bugs are extremely attracted to sweet-smelling flowers, so if you douse yourself in a fragrance inspired by a blossom, it’s all but guaranteed that you will be the object of affection for one or more biting, stinging insects. So skip the potent scents — laundry detergent, shampoo and deodorant all count — and go natural this summer.

There are several essential oils (the natural essences of plants and flowers) that bugs can’t stand. The most popular, citronella, is usually found in the form of a candle, but it works better when applied to the skin with synthetic bug spray. I used a citronella-based bug spray throughout my extremely buggy honeymoon in Thailand and came away with minimal bites. Just be sure to dilute all essential oils in water or a neutral carrier oil like sweet almond oil before placing on the skin. Eucalyptus essential oil can also help fight off mosquitoes, while basil and lavender are thought to keep biting flies away.

Eat like the Italians
Diving into food laden with garlic and onions may keep potential suitors at arm’s length, but it may also keep critters at bay by changing your scent. Mangia!

Image: Jason's insect repellent
Jason's DEET-free insect repellent is made with soybean and geranium oil.

Seek out a a natural bug spray
The trusted team at Whole Body — the body care section of Whole Foods Market — suggests protecting yourself this summer with a DEET-free insect repellent like Jason’s “Quit Bugging Me.” Made with soybean and geranium oil, the spray protects adults and kids from mosquitoes, gnats, horseflies, black and biting flies.

Treat bites with care
For those who will inevitably be sporting multiple bites this summer, remember that there are natural options to speed healing and reduce itch. Applying a few drops of aloe vera gel (straight from the plant is best) or undiluted lavender essential oil should help to calm irritated skin.

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.

Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.

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