Ah, May! The leaves are out, the birds are singing, and the fish are jumping. And the bugs are out! Whether you are able to get out camping or still sheltering in place, mosquitoes, ticks, flies, gnats, chiggers and other nuisance bugs can make your time outdoors less enjoyable.
Additionally, depending on where you are, many of these parasitic invertebrates can carry a host of nasty diseases to worry about, including Zika, Lyme, West Nile, and Rocky Mountain Tick Fever. To protect yourself and your family from the itchy, possibly disease-carrying side of summer, it’s a good idea to know some bug repellent basics.
There are two basic kinds of bug control: things you put on your body, and things you can do to treat an area. A lot is left to personal choice of what kind of protection you want or need for your area. To be most effective, you might consider both options.
Personal space bug control
To give personal space protection, you can either use a topical or spray or wear special clothing treated with chemicals to prevent or kill bugs that get on you. Topicals and sprays are the most commonly found insect repellents on the market. They are applied directly to clothing and/or skin and can either be a manufactured chemical or a naturally derived product.
Research shows that chemical repellents have longer-lasting and wider range protection than natural products. Not all repellents are useful in repelling all insects, so do some research and see what you need for the area you are in. Some of the more common types of topicals and sprays include:
- Picaridin (A synthetic version of a natural repellent found in pepper plants): Picaridin is effective in repelling the greatest range of insects including mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies, and no-see-ums. You want to find a product with a picaridin concentration of at least 20%. Consumer reports rank the Sawyer Products and Natrapel highly in their product testing.
- DEET (N, N-Diethyl-m-toluamide): DEET has been around since the mid-1940s and is the most studied insect repellent on the market. It is considered by many as the Gold Standard for repelling mosquitos, but it is also effective on ticks, chiggers, and biting flies. Unlike Picaridin, with DEET products ANY concentration of DEET is effective, but the higher concentrations are for longer exposure times. For example, a product with 30% DEET is effective 6 hours, while a product with 10% DEET is effective for 2 hours. DEET can damage plastic and synthetic gear and has an oily feel and strong odor that some people do not like. Deep Woods OFF!, Ben’s, and Ultrathon repellents have been highly rated in consumer testing.
- Permethrin (A synthetic chemical version of extracts of the chrysanthemum flower): Permethrin, unlike picaridin and DEET, kills insects that come into contact with it. Permethrin is found in insect-repellent clothing and good for both mosquitos and ticks. You can buy pre-treated clothing such as the Insect Shield line, or do a DIY treatment of your favorite gear by spraying it into clothing and allowing it to dry. Tick socks or tick gaiters are highly effective in killing ticks that crawl up your leg from the grass. NOTE: Cats are very sensitive to permethrin and should not be exposed to it.
- Synthesized plant oils (Oil of lemon eucalyptus, IR3535): Synthesized plant oils are effective on mosquitoes and some ticks, but don’t last as long as other products on the market. Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) has been used as a mosquito repellent since the 1940s and is a CDC-approved mosquito repellent. Look for a product with at least 30% OLE such as Repel.
- Botanicals and Natural plant oils (Lemongrass, citronella, cedar, geranium, etc): These are often found with “natural” product labeling and can include any number of plant-based chemicals. The oils are extracted directly from plants or can be synthetic chemicals that replicate their natural counterparts. They are not regulated by EPA, and generally test less effective and need to be applied more frequently than other products. They may not fully protect you from bites or transmission of diseases.
Area treatment options
For some people, using sprays or lotions is not a preferred option for insect control. Using a system that controls bugs in a wider area, such as your patio or picnic area, may be a preferred method. Area treatment options generally fall into either an eliminate, repellent, or trap method. Generally these methods only treat for mosquitoes and may not be effective on ticks and chiggers.
- Foggers: An area fogging system generally uses pyrethroid chemicals to treat an area to kill mosquitoes that hide in the environment, lasting up to 72 hours. Foggers are generally safe for use around humans and dogs (follow the instructions), but the pyrethroid chemicals are toxic to cats, fish, honeybees, some birds, and should be kept out of waterways. Administer fog to structures and vegetation in the area you will be in, then wait for concentrations to diminish before using the area.
- Repellents: These systems are the up-and-coming technology for travelers. They typically use citronella and allethrin (safe to use around pets) dispersed with butane fuel, battery, or repellent mat. They can come as units you clip to your belt to create a bug-free zone anywhere you move, or in units you set up as your hangout space. They usually only work on mosquitoes and are not effective in windy conditions. Thermacell units are used effectively by trail crews that work on the backcountry hiking trails in south-central Alaska, well known for their epic mosquitoes! Candles and incense sticks can also be used, but are not very effective.
- Traps: Insect traps and bug zappers use light, heat, or carbon dioxide to attract unwanted bugs and trap and kill them. These are generally best for areas of more permanent habitation, as it reduces the breeding population for a more long-term mosquito management solution. Mosquito Magnet is a silent system that uses carbon dioxide and heat to attract mosquitos in an area. The Skeetervac by Blue Rhino treats up to an acre of outdoor space using light, carbon dioxide and a special scent to attract mosquitoes to the trap. These units usually need a propane resource to operate.
- Fans: Many people have found using fans to create enough of a breeze to keep mosquitoes away from an area an effective method for bug control. If you have the power source and don’t want to deal with chemicals, this might be a great option.
Be aware that you should not use insect repellents designed for human use on animals. Consult with your veterinarian and use formulas for specific animals (some chemicals ok for dogs are not ok for cats). Essential oils can also be toxic to animals. Monthly topical treatments for dogs (Advantix II, Vectra3D) are more effective at parasite control and designed for use in dogs. Additionally, many chemicals and compounds in insect repellents are toxic to fish, birds, and beneficial insects (like honey bees, which can take the chemical back to the hive and kill the entire colony.)
There are a lot of options out there, and a lot of information that is both helpful and questionable. Just because your best friend’s Great Uncle Jim uses a mixture of bear scat, diesel fuel, and furniture polish to keep the mosquitoes away, doesn’t mean it is the best solution for you!
The best advice is to do a little research with reputable resources based on your specific needs and find a system that will work best for you to keep you itch (and disease) free while you enjoy being outside.