Toxins in Bug Spray: There is no doubt that the wonderful summer sun comes with a side effect of unwanted bugs and bug bites. Bug sprays are synonymous with summer, but did you know many of the most popular brands contain potentially harmful toxins? Today we explore the ins and outs of bug spray and how a DIY all-natural option (with the recipe!) may be better suited for your and your family’s health.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
The Benefits of Bug Spray
There is no doubt that bug repellents have their benefits. However, although everyone wants to avoid unnecessary scratchy bites from mosquitos, many bugs pose a more serious health threat to humans. Many bugs carry debilitating and even deadly diseases, including Lymes disease, malaria, dengue fever, and West Nile virus.1
Although avoiding bug bites is ideal, we can’t ignore a question: at what cost? We can acknowledge that bug bites are inconvenient at best or potentially deadly at worst, but what are we introducing into our bodies and the air we breathe that may lead to health complications down the line?
Toxins in Bug Spray: What’s In Your Bug Spray?
The most common ingredient in commercial bug sprays is N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, more commonly known as DEET. DEET is one of the most effective ingredients on the market; it works very well at repelling ticks, mosquitos, and other bugs.
DEET was initially tested as a pesticide on farm fields and entered military use in 1946 and eventually civilian use in 1957.2
DEET may work very well, but it is a highly controversial ingredient. Although it is often touted as “safe” by many experts, many others disagree. In addition, many studies suggest that in-face DEET may have serious negative consequences for health.
Blindly considering DEET safe because some experts say so brings up a recurring narrative about how humans interact with nature. Another big-ticket “solution” we have found to our problems with nature is using Glyphosate or Roundup to fix herb and pest problems. Although that “solution” was deemed safe for decades of use, the truth eventually came out that the harsh chemical is poisoning us and the environment too.3
Bug Spray Poisoning
Bug spray is generally applied directly to the skin, introducing the chemicals into the bloodstream via the pores on your skin. Even if it is used on your clothing, airborne chemicals (emitted from aerosol or spray bottles) can also enter your lungs. The problem with these chemicals is twofold–
Acute short-term symptoms include a known danger and warning associated with inhaling or digesting bug spray.1 This should sound alarm bells because if something is toxic to ingest, why would you put it on your pores? Our pores absorb what goes onto them, giving direct access to the bloodstream.
The same goes for inhaling; since many sprays are aerosol or spray bottles, they inevitably enter the air near our bodies. That nasty bug spray smell? Yeah, it means it has entered your lungs. That same reason that it repels bugs should make you wonder: if it repels nature, how can it be safe for our bodies (which are also a part of nature)?
Chronic long-term symptoms: the long-term health impact of DEET on human health is controversial. Although many experts claim it to be perfectly healthy, other studies are starting to highlight the potentially chronic health issues associated with its use. Recent research highlights the potential neurotoxic risk it poses to humans due to its problematic interaction with insects and mammals.4 For example, DEET caused neurons to die in regions of the brain that control muscle movement, learning, memory, and concentration.5
For those suggesting it is not dangerous to human health, the argument hinges on the quantity used. Some claim that used in small amounts, it is perfectly safe. This argument is the same one that was made for decades with glyphosate.
Some countries, like Denmark, have banned DEET completely. Others have restricted how DEET-concentrated bug repellents can be. For example, Canada has banned products that contain over 30% DEET.6 The awareness that high amounts of this product is not healthy for humans is becoming understood. Although heavy concentrations of the product are slowly being banned– it does not prevent people from unknowingly using 30% more of it. Products in the USA have no limit on DEET concentration, some ranging as high as 98.11%.
The problem does not stop at DEET. Many other ingredients found in store-bought bug repellents are toxic to humans.
Apart from DEET, other concerning ingredients in bug spray include:7
- Pyrethroids (which contain over 1,000 insecticides, including Lambda-cyhalothrin, Prallethrin, Metofluthrin, dl-allethrolone, d-trans chrysanthemate, Tetramethrin, Phenothrin, and dl-trans allethrin)
- Synthetic colors and fragrances
- Natural fragrances (which, despite the name, are not natural)
Bug Spray Concerns for Children
Children are much more sensitive to toxicity than adults. Three deaths have been recorded associated with DEET use in children.8 Each of these deaths occurred within three months of using DEET, and all used a concentration of 15% or less. This stat should be very concerning, considering the current safety recommendations for bug repellents.
Some studies also highlight that many warning labels are not correctly read regarding such products. In addition, washing the product off before bed with children is often advised, which is not generally complied with.9 Conceptually, this is concerning, too; if a product is not safe to leave on the skin overnight, how can it be safe to wear on the skin all day long?
Bug Spray Concerns for Pets
The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center warns that when pets are exposed to DEET-containing products, they can suffer serious health repercussions. 10 First, when pets inhale DEET, it can cause airway inflammation and difficulty breathing. Second, when sprayed in a pet’s eyes, DEET can lead to various problems, including conjunctivitis, scleritis, corneal ulceration, and blepharospasm. And finally, general exposure to DEET is linked with gastrointestinal issues, disorientation, shaking, vomiting, tremors, and seizures.
“The Poison is in the Dose”
Although many of the adult studies regarding DEET suggest that problems only occur due to high-dose and chronic use, it’s essential to understand the context of dose-dependent poison. Yes, technically, everything is lethal after a specific dose, even water. However, the difference with DEET is that many people are already navigating many chronic health issues and compromised immune systems.
All forms of stress matter, be it physical, emotional, or chemical. We are bombarded with stressors beyond our control, so we must manage those within our control.
We are in the midst of an autoimmune epidemic. Although by medical definition, the root of these symptoms is “unknown,” holistically minded practitioners understand that all the choices we make and situations we face make the ‘perfect storm’ for autoimmunity to unfold.11 Therefore, avoiding any amount of toxicity is vital.
So what’s the solution? Well, you can buy non-toxic bug repellents in health shops or online or make your own!
Non-Toxic DIY Bug Spray Recipe
The key to making a natural bug spray that works is using essential oils that naturally repel bugs. Some of the best bug-repelling oils are citronella, tea tree, mint, clove, geranium, lavender, lemongrass, cajeput, rosemary, eucalyptus, cedar, and catnip.
- 30 drops of geranium essential oil
- 30 drops citronella essential oil
- 30 drops of lemon eucalyptus essential oil
- 20 drops of mint essential oil
- 10 drops of lemongrass essential oil
- 1 tablespoon vodka or rubbing alcohol
- ½ cup natural witch hazel
- ½ cup water
- 1 tsp vegetable glycerin (optional, it helps the mixture bind together)
- In a spray bottle, combine all the ingredients and shake well.
- If using vegetable glycerine, you can spray it directly onto the skin or clothes. Otherwise, give a good shake every time before use, as the glycerin helps the mixture bind properly.
The ingredients found in mainstream bug repellents contain questionable and harmful chemicals that we should not use long term. Even in the short term, DEET causes suggest they are not safe. In addition, their toxicity is compounded in children and pets. DEET and other common toxic ingredients cannot be justified when natural options that use essential oils exist or can be made at home.
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based on the opinions of The Cell Health team. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended to share knowledge and information from the research and experience of the Cell Health team. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD, for the accuracy of the information provided. Still, we encourage you to make your own healthcare decisions based on your research and in partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.
- “Bug Spray Poisoning: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002763.htm.
- Katz, Tracy M., et al. “Insect Repellents: Historical Perspectives and New Developments.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, vol. 58, no. 5, 2008, pp. 865–871., doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2007.10.005.
- Cohen, Patricia. “Roundup Maker to Pay $10 Billion to Settle Cancer Suits.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/business/roundup-settlement-lawsuits.html.
- Swale, Daniel R et al. “Neurotoxicity and mode of action of N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET).” PloS one vol. 9,8 e103713. 7 Aug. 2014, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103713
- Abou-Donia, M B et al. “Effects of daily dermal application of DEET and epermethrin, alone and in combination, on sensorimotor performance, blood-brain barrier, and blood-testis barrier in rats.” Journal of toxicology and environmental health. Part A vol. 62,7 (2001): 523-41. doi:10.1080/152873901300007824
- Format:“Duke Pharmacologist Says Animal Studies On DEET’s Brain Effects Warrant Further Testing.” Duke Today, today.duke.edu/2002/05/deet0502.html.
- “Chemicals of Concern in Bug Repellent.” MADE SAFE, 2 July 2019, www.madesafe.org/education/chemicals-bug-repellent/.
- “TOXICOLOGICAL PROFILE FOR DEET (N, N-DIETHYL-META-TOLUAMIDE).” U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICESAgency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Aug. 2017, ireadlabelsforyou.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Toxicological-profile-for-DEET.pdf.
- Menon, Kalapurakkal S, and Amy E Brown. “Exposure of children to Deet and other topically applied insect repellents.” American journal of industrial medicine vol. 47,1 (2005): 91-7. doi:10.1002/ajim.20114
- “Don’t DEET That Dog!” ASPCApro, 20 Nov. 2019, www.aspcapro.org/resource/dont-deet-dog.