Summer is in full force, and that means more mosquitoes, ticks, and other creepy crawlies that bite, sting and suck. The great outdoors becomes, for many, one great big picnic — with us on the menu.
Yet some folks are just as concerned about the chemicals found in popular insect repellent products as they are the pests themselves.
Search the Internet for home remedies to ward off bugs and you’ll find page after page of non-toxic tips, everything from rubbing yourself down with garlic to stuffing your pockets with fabric softening sheets.
To help navigate it all, TODAY talked to two bug-loving experts, Dr. Richard Pollack, a public health entomologist at Harvard University and co-founder of IdentifyUS, and Joseph M. Conlon, a retired Navy entomologist who is now an advisor to the American Mosquito Control Association.
While both experts say that it’s tough to beat the efficacy of DEET-based insect repellent products —and both they say those products are safe as long as they’re used as directed — they agree that a few natural alternatives do a surprisingly good job of warding off pests.
Here, they help separate the facts from the myths about what attracts and repels bugs.
Mosquitoes are attracted to dark clothing.
“We have hundreds of different types of mosquitoes around and each one probably has its own preferences,” says Pollack. “I wouldn’t necessarily choose the color of my clothing based on whether mosquitoes are present or not.”
Drink a potion containing apple cider vinegar to keeps bugs away.
“I have never seen any evidence that it has any effect,” Pollack says. “Although it’s good to cook with!”
Conlon agrees. “You can’t ingest anything that’s going to keep you from being bitten by mosquitoes. There’s nothing out there.”
Rub garlic on your skin to repel insects.
“It keeps other people away!” says Pollack.
“Garlic is a known toxicant to mosquitoes. If you put garlic in water, it will kill mosquito larvae,” says Conlon. However, as a repellent, it’s not very effective. “In a double-blind study, it didn’t seem to work at all.”
Essential oils have bug repellent properties.
“Actually,some of the essential oils, the plant-derived oils, have demonstrated repellent effect,” Pollack says, with lemongrass oil and lemon eucalyptus being the real contenders. He says a product called Nomo (or Nomas in Latin American countries), which is not sold in the United States, contains both lemongrass and lemon eucalyptus oils and it works wonders. “It’s pretty impressive stuff. It’s sad it’s not available here.”
Conlon agrees that some essential oils work very well.“Oil of lemon eucalyptus, in particular, is registered with the EPA as a repellent, and at 40 percent concentrate is almost as good as DEET,” he says. “Rosemary oil, cedarwood oil, citronella is a bona fide repellent. However, essential oils, Conlon says, are tough to use because they volatize off the skin too quickly. “That’s why they haven’t really taken off as commercial repellents as much as they probably could.”
Take Vitamin B daily to ward off insects.
“That’s under the category of Old Wives Tales. Or Old Husband’s Tales,” Pollack says.
Use unscented toiletries and forgo fragrances and bugs won’t bite.
The evidence is weak in that direction, says Conlon. “People theorize that flowery scents attract mosquitoes that are drawn to plant nectars for food. You’re probably better off not having the scents out there, but I’m not aware of any research that’s been done that positively identifies them as attractive to mosquitoes.”
A soapy shower after being in woodsy areas will wash away ticks.
Removing clothing immediately will get ticks off your clothing, but, “Once a tick has attached it’s not going to wash off,” Pollack says. If you do see a tick, Pollack says, “Find it quickly, and remove it promptly. Take fine-tipped forceps and yank it off.” He suggests saving the tick so that it can be properly identified and tested, if need be. (More info on ticks can be found on Pollack’s website.)
Stuff dryer sheets in your pockets to keep pests away.
“If that catches on, I want to invest in the companies that makes those things,” Polllack says.
Wasps and bees hate baby powder.
“Next time I see a bee or wasp, I’ll ask it but it if it could answer me, I think it would be laughing,” says Pollack.
Are bug repellent products made with all-natural ingredients safer?
When it comes to any bug repellent products, both experts urge consumers to stick to those that are EPA-registered for safety. Just because something is “all-natural,” says Pollack doesn’t mean it’s safe. “There are a lot of products that have come my way that are all-natural, but I wouldn’t put them on my skin because the toxicological profile should scare you a little bit.”