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Summertime weather is here! What’s really in your Insect Repellent?

Summertime weather is here! What’s really in your Insect Repellent? Or maybe the better question is- are you using insect repellent at all? What’s the difference between chemical (synthetic) spray repellents and natural products. How well do natural repellents work and are they safer to use ?

Summertime weather is here! What’s really in your Insect Repellent? Here’s the 411 on the why and what you should look for on the label. Written by Dr. Susan Eisen.


from the editor: We are always questioning whether natural and organic products work as well as synthetic when it comes to skincare products. Insect repellent is definitely part of my skincare routine in the summer – even in the city! After years of bugging out at the beach and walking through green areas of the city including central park, I carry a repellent in my bag daily.

Dr. Susan Eisen: Here are some answers to the basic questions and a deep dive into the “chemistry” of insect repellents for use on the skin.

WHY: Why Do I need to use insect repellents at all? Aren’t they poisonous? The answer is dependent on what ingredients are in the formula of the insect repellent that factor into a potential toxicity – or not. The good news is not all formulas are identical and not all sprays contain the same ingredients.  The most common formulas have synthetic chemicals that contain DEET or permethrin and picaridin that are synthetically derived and can be potentially harmful to humans.

With the increased temperatures on our planet, the need for a safe, reliable bug spray has become as essential as having a toothbrush or a hairbrush or soap in our daily hygiene! Vector borne tropical diseases (from bug bites) are on the rise, as well as other infectious diseases that have been around for millennia. Simply put, there are more bugs carrying disease producing pathogens.

WHAT is in your insect repellent: Is it safe and effective?

Dr. Susan Eisen: The active ingredients in most chemical bug sprays are DEET, permethrin and picaridin. We are told that these synthetic chemical repellents that are the active ingredient in most chemical bug sprays are long lasting 8-12 hours – and therefore, the best. The question to be answered here… are they really safe?

DEET is a strong neurotoxin and cause a variety of side effects. Permethrin is a known human carcinogen. Do we really want to be putting these harmful ingredients on our skin and on our pets during the hot summer months when everything melts in our sweat and gets into our eyes and mouths?

According to Consumer Reports: “Permethrin disrupts the endocrine system and should not be inhaled. Applying it to the skin is safe when treating temporary conditions such as scabies, but it should not be applied repeatedly, such as to prevent mosquito or tick bites.” 

Permethrin is the main ingredient in a commonly known shampoo for lice. The instructions specifically state not to use it more than one time, so why would we use the ingredient several times daily in our insect repellent? 

Most natural repellents claim to be waterproof which sounds like a good thing. The problem is that in order to blend the mixture, alcohol, witch hazel and other additives must be used that can reduce the effectiveness per application to 30-90 minutes depending on the brand. If you’re out on a long hike or in your backyard, it’s important to have a repellent that you don’t need to apply every hour. While waterproof sounds great, it’s less effective and doesn’t last as long. 

A non-waterproof or hydrophilic blend insect repellent can be a better option. It adheres to the skin much better for greater coverage and can last 4-5 hours per application. The bioactivity of the active aromatic essential oils remains intact thus lasting much longer than the waterproof repellents. Look for products that are 100% oil based without drying agents. There are handful of repellents of this type on the market, and Tick Tock Naturals is a brand specifically formulated to be hydrophilic. 

While bug season and tick season are here, there are more bugs every year, so it’s essential to protect yourself. Being careful with the ingredients in the products you put on your skin including insect repellent and make sure to research brands beyond supermarket shelves.

Summertime weather is here! What’s really in your Insect Repellent? by Dr. Susan Eisen. @drsueeisen.

outdoor and floral photos: Brigitte Segura @Brigitte_Segura.

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