Many Bug Sprays Are Just Unregulated, Ineffective Garbage

Illustration for article titled Many Bug Sprays Are Just Unregulated, Ineffective Garbage

Hooray, you guys! It's outdoor sunshine BBQ lake lounging tiki torch season! But you know what that means: It's also gross bugs eating you alive and feasting on your blood and giving you disfiguring welts and deadly diseases season. Bogus.


There seems to be no good defense against those bitey little shitheads. The nauseating stank of bug sprays is pretty much on par with the itchiness of bug bites, and—speaking as a person whose flesh apparently smells like an all-you-can-eat ice cream sundae bar to mosquitos—I end up getting covered in bites no matter how much gross shit I slather on my body. So what's the point?

Well, the point is that more and more insect-borne diseases are making their way to your neighborhood, and the sinus-singing stench of Citronella is a minor inconvenience compared to, you know, being dead. If, like me, you've learned not to put much stock in bug repellants, maybe it's because we've been using the wrong ones.

Kiera Butler at Mother Jones has a helpful round-up of the best and worst insect repellants out there. Basically, DEET isn't actually bad for you, and everything else is phony, unregulated garbage.

Despite massive industry lobbying, sunscreen manufacturers must now state clearly on the packaging how well and how long a product works. Repellent companies, however, are hardly required to follow any rules at all. In 2013, when the health watchdog Environmental Working Group analyzed various repellents, researchers found that manufacturers' claims about how long products last varied widely—even with the same active ingredient in the same concentrations. Some manufacturers claimed that their products were waterproof, even though—beachgoers beware—they did not offer proof. Others boasted exotic active ingredients—like clove oil and lemongrass oil—that have not been adequately tested and may contain high concentrations of allergens. "There should be a way for consumers to compare products," says EWG senior scientist David Andrews. "And right now, there is really not."

...EWG suggests skipping products with plant-based active ingredients, even though they sound greener; the EPA does not require registration of these substances, and no one knows how safe or effective they are. The CDC recommends avoiding combined sunscreen-repellents because sunscreen requires much more frequent application than repellent—and the effect of overapplication of repellent hasn't been well studied.

I know we all grew up believing that DEET was toxic-sludge-cancer-poison that would scrape your face off, but Butler says those claims haven't actually proven true. The low concentration of DEET you're getting in commercial bug sprays hasn't been associated with significant health risks in any study. And DEET is one of the few products that actually works.

Here's Butler again:

For the best protection against both mosquitoes and ticks, the CDCrecommends products containing DEET. For just mosquitoes, the agency also approves of products with the active ingredients picaridin (the active ingredient in most Avon Skin So Soft products), IR3535, and oil of lemon eucalyptus—which, despite its natural-sounding name, is actually a synthetic formulation. EWG found all three of these ingredients to be just as effective as DEET.


So there you go! If you don't want to be a bug's lunch but you're still leery of DEET, you can go with one of those other thingies. And you should probably figure out a game plan soon—global warming isn't doing us any favors when it comes to insect-borne diseases.


Image via Henrik Larsson/Shutterstock.



Perhaps the one evolutionary one-up I ever received is that for some reason, I never get bug bites. I can go to a BBQ in the middle of July and walk away completely un-bitten, while everyone else is immediately miserable. Mosquitos, bees, wasps, fleas... I may as well not even exist to them. Never gotten a tick, either. I think it's a karmic trade-off for getting bit by a rattlesnake as a five-year-old. Does anyone else just... not attract bugs? Maybe it's a blood type thing.