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The DEET Dilemma

by Sherry Beames, La Crosse Wellness Department

There’s a buzz in the air and it’s not the excitement about the arrival of summer. It’s bug season, and this year, the insects are extreme. Before reaching for that big can of chemical bug-spray, consider what you’re putting on your body. DEET (N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) is the most common active ingredient found in bug repellents. Developed by the United States Army for use in jungle warfare, it entered mainstream repellents around 1965. Its safety has since been debated.

DEET is a member of the toluene chemical family, a common solvent used in rubber and plastic cements and also paint removers. It is absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream and intestinal tract. That’s right, it’s absorbed into your body. Concerns about using DEET include its effect on the central nervous system and brain cell damage. Regions of the brain that control muscle movement, learning, memory, and concentration are affected. Symptoms of DEET toxicity include: headache, lethargy, tremors, rashes, numb or burning lips, dizziness, nausea, and seizures. The use of DEET on children can be even more dangerous as their nervous systems are still developing and their skin is more absorbent.

The Environmental Protection Agency strongly recommends following the directions on the labels of DEET products—including washing it off your skin and the clothes you were wearing when you are no longer outside. Manufacturers advise not to use DEET products under clothes or on damaged skin.

It’s not just about the itch and annoyance. With diseases like Lyme and West Nile Virus, we have reason to be cautious. There are alternative choices in bug repellent! Essential oils are highly concentrated and have proven to be as effective (or more) than their chemical-containing competitors, without the harsh side effects.

Interested in making your own formula? Lemon Eucalyptus works by masking the cues that mosquitoes use to locate their target. It helps prevent mosquito and deer tick bites. Other essential oils that help repel insects include citronella, geranium, cedar, lemongrass, lavender, peppermint, and vanilla. Because of their high concentration, essential oils must be diluted before applying to skin. A carrier oil, such as almond, jojoba, or castor oil (also repellent) are wonderful to dilute oils with. Water can also be used, but requires vigorous shaking before application to mix the oils and water. Ask for more information and recipes at the PFC’s Wellness Desk.

If you prefer a pre-made repellent, we have plenty of options at the co-op. Quantum’s Buzz Away Extreme (gives protection for up to four hours), Badger Anti-Bug (available in spray or balm), LuSa’s Hey You. Shoo. (from Viroqua), and BioUD (a formula using an extract from the wild tomato plant) are all regarded as safe and effective natural repellents.

Other tips to deter insects include using an oscillating fan, (the breeze makes it harder for them to stick the landing), wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing (long sleeves and pants help too), and be sure to drain all standing water in and around your yard (pet bowls, bird baths, gutters, and garbage bins). Mosquitoes breed in water, even small amounts.

When bites occur try a few drops of lavender oil to soothe inflammation and irritation. Quantum’s Sting Soothe or Veriditas’ Bug Eraser are good remedies as well. Try not to let pesky bugs get the best of your bean bag toss game. Be safe and protected with a natural repellent. Apply liberally, and get outside!