Toxic Timeout: Here’s What Is Creepy About Bug Repellent

Bugs can be creepy, but the chemicals we use to keep them away can be even creepier. As Amy Ziff, founder of MADE SAFE, points out below, insect repellents are essentially pesticides and we’re slathering our skin with them!  We can’t necessarily forgo the bug balm all together, so here are a few tips for better shopping… 

the 101 on Bug Repellent: Insect repellents are regulated as pesticides in the United States because their active ingredients are registered pesticides. Bug repellants are made up of two types of ingredients: active ingredients and inert ingredients.

Active ingredients are the repelling chemicals and must appear on the label. Active ingredients, though effective, may also be chemicals of concern. The following are commonly used active ingredients in bug repellent:

DEET: Linked to skin irritation, neurotoxicity and shown to cross the placenta. Shows up in groundwater, surface water and drinking water.

Cyfluthrin: Linked to neurotoxicity and harmful to aquatic invertebrates, fish and honeybees.

Permethrin: Linked to neurotoxicity  and harmful to aquatic invertebrates, fish and honeybees.

Pyrethroids: A class of chemicals linked to neurotoxicty; some have been linked to endocrine disruption; some have been classified as possible carcinogens.

Inert ingredients are everything else in the repellent and can be all kinds of things from solvents and preservatives to anti-caking agents and fragrance. They are not required to be fully disclosed and listed on the label. It’s important to note that, in the case of insect repellant, the word “inert” does not mean nontoxic, as some might think, but rather the term is used to classify ingredients because of their role in the formulation.

For example, the EPA has approved approximately 3,000 chemicals as inert ingredients, including some harmful chemicals like naphthalene (linked to cancer), xylene (linked to depression of the nervous system) and triethanolamine (linked to respiratory problems and liver and bladder cancer in animal studies). Some inert ingredients have also been previously listed as active ingredients or are concurrently registered as an active pesticide ingredient.

Plant-Based Alternatives: Some plants have pharmacological and biological properties that make their extracts effective when used as insect repellent. However, they can also be irritating to the skin and some have been listed as human-contact allergens by the European Commission – so try a small patch test before use.

Botanical options shown to repel insects include citronella, clove oil, geraniol, lemongrass, lemon eucalyptus, linalool, neem and thyme. Clove and thyme have been found to be particularly effective as repellents in efficacy studies. The EPA has also approved oil of lemon eucalyptus as an effective insect repellent.

Using essential oil blends always requires the use of a carrier oil, like fractionated coconut oil, to slow evaporation and repel insects longer, as well as to dilute the potency of essential oils. If you’re planning to mix your own bug repellent, we recommend caution and a lot of research before embarking!

For more information on chemicals of concern and plant-based alternatives, check out our new report on Bug Repellent here.

brands we love: Kosmatology Bug Repellent Balm* made with a mixture of herbs, essential oils, and coconut oil and Oilogic Bug Bites & Itches Essential Oil Roll-On* made with a mix of essential oils to soothe skin irritated by bites.

*MADE SAFE does not test for efficacy. We examine ingredients for human health and environmental harm and we don’t permit pesticides. This means that approved products are taking a natural approach to bug repellant. This may work for casual settings to diminish bites, but it cannot prevent diseases.
With the rise of Zika virus and concern for other mosquito- and tick-borne diseases, Made Safe recognizes there is a time and place for the use of bug repellant products that would not pass our screening process. The CDC recommends using EPA-approved insect repellents, which include DEET, IR3535, citronella, picaridin and lemon eucalyptus oil. We urge people to become informed and stay on top of advice from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

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