This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
Bugs being a part of summer is an inevitable truth, but poisoning yourself to avoid them doesn’t have to be. Although bug sprays serve a purpose, many commercially available sprays contain nasty chemicals unsafe for humans and pets. Luckily, there are natural alternatives that work without adding to the body’s toxic burden.
The Benefits of Bug Spray
Nobody enjoys the scratchy after-effect of a mosquito bite, but the problem with insects reaches much farther than itchy skin. Many bugs carry debilitating and even deadly diseases, including Lyme's disease, malaria, dengue fever, and West Nile virus 1. The benefit of bug spray is, needless to say, keeping these potentially deadly insects at bay.
Although avoiding bug bites is ideal, it’s essential to evaluate the cost-benefit of the methods we use to keep them away. We can acknowledge that bug bites are inconvenient at best or potentially deadly at worst, but what is the impact that bug sprays have on the health of our bodies and of the planet?
What’s In Your Bug Spray?
The most common ingredient in commercial bug sprays is N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, more commonly known as DEET. This is because it is a highly effective product. DEET was initially created in 1946 as a pesticide on farm fields and later introduced for human use in 1957 2.
Although it is the most commonly used active ingredient in bug spray, DEET remains a highly controversial ingredient. Many experts claim it to be safe, but logic begs to differ. Unfortunately, like many toxic ingredients with widespread use, the safety claims are made long before science catches up. Luckily, studies are starting to highlight that, in fact, DEET may not be so safe after all.
The DEET situation runs alarmingly parallel to the glyphosate Roundup fiasco. Although the pesticide Roundup was alleged to be safe for decades, the truth has finally come out that this harsh chemical is poisoning humans and the environment3.
Bug Spray Poisoning
Bug spray containing toxic chemicals like DEET poison the body through various channels. Applied topically, these chemicals can enter the bloodstream via your pores. Since most of these products come in spray or aerosol cans, the toxins also become airborne and can be inhaled into your lungs. As soon as you smell that bug spray smell, you can know that particles have made their way into your lungs.
Exposure to the toxins found in bug spray can lead to short-term and long-term health consequences.
Acute short-term symptoms: there is a known danger and warning associated with inhaling or digesting bug sprays 1. Anything that is too toxic to ingest should not be placed on the skin, absorbing directly into the bloodstream. Symptoms of acute exposure to bug spray can also occur due to exposure via the lungs by breathing in the toxins.
Short-term symptoms from bug spray poisoning include:
- Breathing difficulty
- Loss of alertness
- Upset stomach, including cramps, stomach pain, and nausea
Chronic long-term symptoms: the long-term health impact of DEET on human health is controversial. Western medicine has a generally difficult time connecting the dots between chronic health conditions and their root causes. This is because there is a multitude of inputs that cause long-term chronic health problems. DEET is a pesticide; it is a toxic ingredient. Over time, it should not be surprising that it leads to health concerns since toxicity compounds over time in the body.
Although many experts claim it to be perfectly healthy, studies are beginning to highlight the problematic nature of DEET. For example, recent research highlights the potential neurotoxic risk it poses to humans due to its detrimental effect on insects and mammals 4. In one study, DEET caused neurons to die in regions of the brain that control muscle movement, learning, memory, and concentration5.
Those that claim DEET to be a safe highlight that poison is dose-dependent. Although this may be true for acute exposure to toxins (i.e., you need to be exposed to a significantly large dose to die instantaneously), they don’t factor in the slow build-up of toxicity in the body that eventually leads to chronic health issues.
The “small amounts of DEET is safe” is the same argument made for decades with glyphosate. Short-term, sure. Long-term? Devastating health consequences that are generally not linked back to the original cause of toxicity until it’s much too late.
Countries like Denmark have already banned DEET completely. Others have restricted how concentrated DEET-containing bug repellents can be. For example, Canada has banned products that contain over 30% DEET 6. Products in the USA have no limit on DEET concentration, some ranging as high as 98.11%.
Although DEET is the worst offender, many other ingredients found in store-bought bug repellents are also toxic to humans.
Apart from DEET, other concerning ingredients in bug spray include: 7
- Pyrethroids (which contains over 1,000 insecticides including Lambda-cyhalothrin, Prallethrin, Metofluthrin, dl-allethrolone, d-trans chrysanthemate, Tetramethrin, Phenothrin, and dl-trans allethrin)
- Synthetic colors and fragrances
- Natural fragrances (which, despite the name, are not natural)
Bug Spray Concerns for Children
Bug sprays generally have separate warning labels for use in children. Such warnings often include the fact that children should rinse off bug repellents before going to bed. Unfortunately, these warnings are generally not read, misunderstood, or not complied with, making bug sprays even more dangerous for children 8.
Three deaths have been recorded associated with DEET use in children 8. Each of these deaths occurred within three months of using DEET, and all used a concentration of 15% or less. According to the reports, they used the bug sprays following their warning labels, making this statistic very concerning 9.
Bug Spray Concerns for Pets
The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center highlights that pets should not be exposed to DEET-containing products due to health concerns 10. Inhaled DEET can lead to airway inflammation and difficulty breathing. If a DEET-containing bug spray is accidentally sprayed in a pet’s eyes, it can lead to various problems, including conjunctivitis, scleritis, corneal ulceration, and blepharospasm. And finally, general exposure to DEET is linked with gastrointestinal issues, disorientation, shaking, vomiting, tremors, and seizures in pets.
“The Poison is in the Dose”
Although many of the adult studies regarding DEET suggest that problems only occur due to high-dose and chronic use, it’s essential to understand that what is being measured here is the acute exposure to toxins. One exposure may be safe enough (as in, you probably won’t immediately develop symptoms of toxicity), but they do not account for chronic long-term use.
Toxicity builds up over time, which is why so many people are facing a myriad of health conditions 11. Many people are already navigating many chronic health issues and compromised immune systems, so adding any degree of toxicity to their bodies is compounding the problem.
All forms of stress matter, whether they be physical, emotional, or chemical. So many causes of toxicity are out of our control, and a degree of them is a necessary part of life. Our responsibility is to control what we can, which will make us more resilient to situations out of our control.
So what’s the solution? When it comes to bug sprays, the swap is relatively simple. There are non-toxic bug repellents available in health shops or online, or you can simply make your own!
Non-Toxic DIY Bug Spray Recipe
The key to making a natural bug spray that works is using essential oils that naturally repel bugs. Some of the best bug-repelling oils are citronella, tea tree, mint, clove, geranium, lavender, lemongrass, cajeput, rosemary, eucalyptus, cedar, and catnip.
- 30 drops geranium essential oil
- 30 drops citronella essential oil
- 30 drops lemon eucalyptus essential oil
- 20 drops mint essential oil
- 10 drops lemongrass essential oil
- 1 tablespoon vodka or rubbing alcohol
- ½ cup natural witch hazel
- ½ cup water
- 1 tsp vegetable glycerin (optional, it helps the mixture bind together)
- In a spray bottle, combine all the ingredients and shake well.
- If using the vegetable glycerine, you can spray directly onto the skin or clothes. Otherwise, give a good shake every time before use, as the glycerin helps the mixture bind properly.
The ingredients found in mainstream bug repellents contain questionable and harmful chemicals that we should not use long term. Even in the short term, DEET causes suggest they are not safe. In addition, toxicity builds up in children and pets. DEET and other common toxic ingredients simply cannot be justified when natural options that use essential oils exist or can be made at home.Medical Disclaimer: This article is based upon the opinions of Revelation Health. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Revelation Health and associates. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD for accuracy of the information provided, but Revelation Health encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.
1 “Bug Spray Poisoning: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002763.htm.
2 Katz, Tracy M., et al. “Insect Repellents: Historical Perspectives and New Developments.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, vol. 58, no. 5, 2008, pp. 865–871., doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2007.10.005.
3 Cohen, Patricia. “Roundup Maker to Pay $10 Billion to Settle Cancer Suits.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/business/roundup-settlement-lawsuits.html.
4 Swale, Daniel R et al. “Neurotoxicity and mode of action of N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET).” PloS one vol. 9,8 e103713. 7 Aug. 2014, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103713
5 Abou-Donia, M B et al. “Effects of daily dermal application of DEET and epermethrin, alone and in combination, on sensorimotor performance, blood-brain barrier, and blood-testis barrier in rats.” Journal of toxicology and environmental health. Part A vol. 62,7 (2001): 523-41. doi:10.1080/152873901300007824
6 “Duke Pharmacologist Says Animal Studies On DEET's Brain Effects Warrant Further Testing.” Duke Today, today.duke.edu/2002/05/deet0502.html.
7 “Chemicals of Concern in Bug Repellent.” MADE SAFE, 2 July 2019, www.madesafe.org/education/chemicals-bug-repellent/.
8 Menon, Kalapurakkal S, and Amy E Brown. “Exposure of children to Deet and other topically applied insect repellents.” American journal of industrial medicine vol. 47,1 (2005): 91-7. doi:10.1002/ajim.20114
9 “TOXICOLOGICAL PROFILE FOR DEET (N, N-DIETHYL-META-TOLUAMIDE).” U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICESAgency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Aug. 2017, ireadlabelsforyou.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Toxicological-profile-for-DEET.pdf.
10 “Don't DEET That Dog!” ASPCApro, 20 Nov. 2019, www.aspcapro.org/resource/dont-deet-dog.
11 Pompa, Dr. Daniel. “The Three-Legged Stool: The Autoimmune Answer.” Dr. Pompa & Cellular Healing TV, Dr. Pompa & Cellular Healing TV, 12 May 2021, drpompa.com/health/the-three-legged-stool-the-autoimmune-answer/.