What DEET is and How it Works
DEET is a chemical compound by the name of N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide. It works not by killing insects, but by messing with their senses so it is more difficult for them to smell us. Various repellents can contain anywhere from 5 to 99% deet (1).
Safety of DEET
I was hard pressed to find sources that stated DEET was unsafe, but I just can’t take no for an answer.
The EPA has studied DEET and clings onto their ruling that it is completely safe for everyone and there are no environmental effects. They state no additional research is needed at this time. As an individual that is wary to trust what the government says, I had to do a little more digging.
My first red flag came from the EPA’s recommendation on what to do if you have an averse reaction to DEET.
“If you suspect that you or your child is having an adverse reaction to a DEET product, discontinue use of the product, wash treated skin, and call your local poison control center or physician for help” (1).
So DEET is perfectly safe for adults and children alike, right? Well, why on earth would you have to call poison control if you have a reaction to it? That makes no sense. There’s got to be something more that we haven’t been told.
Of course, there is something more we haven’t been told. A study done on rats showed that DEET decreases brain permeability and reduces sensorimotor function. Each subset of rats were given a different dose of DEET. Every group showed significant decreases in permeability between the blood-brain barrier (3).
It’s safe to say that if these rats are experiencing problems with DEET, then we are as well. Just because we don’t feel something happening, doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on. Messing with the blood brain barrier is not something you will feel, but communications to and from your brain will most certainly be reduced. Not to mention the hindrance of sensorimotor function, which could eventually lead to nerve damage.
The environment is also affected by DEET, even though the EPA claims otherwise. A study done in 2002 on the North Sea tested for concentrations of different drugs and personal care ingredients including “clofibric acid, diclofenac, ibuprofen, ketoprofen, propyphenazone, caffeine and N,N-diethyl-3-toluamide (DEET)” (4). Concentrations of DEET were shown to be 1.1 ng/L. It doesn’t seem like much, but it doesn’t take much to do damage. This study was also done in 2002; I imagine the concentrations would be higher 15 years later. Also keep in mind the other pharmaceuticals tested that also contaminated seawater (4).
DEET Melts Plastic!
You read that right. DEET melts plastic. Why is this? Well, DEET is chemically described as a solvent.
“DEET is a member is of the toluene family. These chemicals are solvents, which explains why the DEET-based bug spray was able to remove paint and melt plastic” (5).
So DEET melts plastic, and we think it’s okay to put that on our skin? I mean sure, it doesn’t melt our skin but… Why would want to put a plastic solvent on your skin, fully well knowing that?
Here’s a video below demonstrating how DEET can melt plastic, even in concentrations as low as 30% DEET:
Is there an Alternative?
With all things considered, by this point you probably don’t want to be using DEET. So what’s a health-conscious individual to do? Bug sprays with various concentrations of DEET are probably all you’ve ever used.
That’s where essential oils and other plant based ingredients come in handy.
Why Essential Oils are Effective
I know, I know. Health nuts all over have been preaching about almighty essential oils to you until they’re blue in the face. I assure you it’s for good reason. Essential oils are great!
They make a fantastic bug repellent because that’s actually the main reason they exist! “Essential oils often function as insect toxins and many protect against fungal or bacterial attack” (6).
Ever wonder why insects just don’t seem to touch certain plants? It’s all down to the essential oils. Each plant produces essential oils with different concentrations of various compounds to suit its needs. Some can even have a different effect on the target pest. For example, chrysanthemum produces monoterpenoid esters which “act as insect neurotoxins” (6).
Not all Natural Repellents are Created Equal
At one point or another, I’m sure you’ve crossed paths with a citronella candle. Citronella has been on the receiving end of a lot of good press in regard to repelling insects, and for good reason. When you’re within the effective radius of a citronella candle, mosquitoes and other nasty biting bugs are kept at bay. Stray too far however, and you’re inundated with stings and bites.
This is an obvious problem and thus many have implemented citronella into a topical bug spray. However, the issue still isn’t fixed. Natural bug sprays with citronella just don’t seem to last very long. I know every one I’ve used I’ve had to reapply every half hour, or even more frequently.
Why does it stop working so quickly? The answer lies in perfumery.
Top Notes, Middle Notes, Base Notes
Seems like a reach to connect perfumery with insect repellents, but trust me. It makes complete sense!
Top notes, “Also sometimes referred to as the opening notes or head notes, the top notes of a fragrance are generally the lightest of all the notes”. They also have the most delicate molecular structure and therefore are the first to fade (7).
“The middle notes, or the heart notes, make an appearance once the top notes evaporate. The middle notes are considered the heart of the fragrance” (7).
Once the top notes have fully dissipated, base notes come into play. ” The job of the base notes is to provide the lasting impression. These often rich notes linger on the skin for hours after the top notes have dissipated” (7).
Now, what this has to do with natural bug repellent is that essential oils each have their own “note” assigned to them. Essential oils commonly used in natural bug repellents are almost all categorized as top notes. Citronella, lemongrass, peppermint, tea tree, lemon, orange, etc (8).
They’re popular choices due to the fact that they are top notes. They’re the first thing you smell in a blend, and they punch through other odors. They start strong, but fade quickly. So although top note essential oils are effective bug repellents, they just don’t last long enough to be worth the effort.
What Makes my Repellent Different?
These perfumery notes are exactly what makes my bug repellent different. I utilize essential oils that are middle and base notes, which last far longer on the skin. They give you peace of mind; not having to worry about reapplying every half hour or less.
Pine and oregano are my middle notes, and clove acts as the base note. The combination of these three oils creates a bug barrier effective for hours on end. What makes my blend even more unique is the use of pine resin infused in olive oil.
Pine resin, as I’m sure you know, is an incredibly sticky substance. Sometimes gymnasts, acrobats, baseball players, and other athletes use pine tar/pine rosin to improve their grips while performing! I infuse pine resin in olive oil so that it doesn’t feel sticky on your skin, but that tackiness is still doing work. Even though you won’t feel it, the stickiness of the pine resin gives my bug repellent a sort of staying power. It holds onto the essential oils longer and truly provides a barrier to insects.
Not only does the pine resin keep the essential oils on your skin longer, it actually possesses its own repelling properties.
“Many of the oleoresins from pine trees…have high levels of terpenes. Terpenes are a class of organic compounds (hydrocarbons) that a tree produces to repel pests;” (9).
Each ingredient has a distinctive purpose; to keep insects away!
Just say NO!
I hope this post has gotten you to think a bit about the problems with DEET and to discontinue using it. There’s solutions out there that work just as well, and won’t damage your health or the environment.
If interested, you can find my repellent here.
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