Can You Protect Against Bug Bites Naturally?

Prevent the bug feast with fewer toxic chemicals!

Summer! Ahh...those long-awaited almost-never-ending light-filled days spent basking in the glorious warmth of the could it be bad? Oh, right...those pesky insects, of course! Don't let these buggers and chiggers ruin your entire summer! Here are some tips for how to prevent insect bites and decrease discomfort if they do end up feasting on your family's sweet-smelling skin!

For the most part, mosquitoes and other insects that bite or sting humans are simply annoying and not a major threat other than causing itchy welts, swelling, or some pain at the site. However, some can carry or cause threatening diseases such as West Nile or malaria (mosquitoes), Lyme disease (ticks), and severe allergic reactions (bees).

An ounce of bug bite prevention...

Cover up!

Reaching for a bottle of bug repellent should be the last resort and only used as needed (for instance, if your risk of insect-borne diseases is high). Try covering up (light long sleeved shirts, high collars, thick pants tucked into socks) with light-colored clothing and use nets, especially over strollers.

Resorting to repellent

If covering up doesn’t do the trick or if you are in a region where the prevalence of insect-borne diseases is high, repellents are an effective way to prevent bug bites, but most of the conventional repellents contain DEET. DEET is a substance whose mechanism isn't fully understood but it is suspected that it prevents insects from being able to detect us. The problem is that skin is extremely porous and everything we apply to it has the potential to be absorbed in high quantities and DEET's side-effects are not something we have a full grasp of.

Repellent alternatives

Some repellents can be relatively effective and low in toxicity provided that they are used correctly. The Environmental Working Group has come up with the top 4 ingredients that offer a high level of protection against insects and ticks and have a relatively safe profile:

  • Picaridin
  • IR3535 
  • Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus and its synthetic derivative PMD
  • DEET 

DEET made it on the list because it is the only one approved by the WHO for protection against tick bites and can offer strong protection when you need it. It you are specifically looking for an effective insect repellent that is botanically-derived, try products that contain oil of lemon Eucalyptus or PMD.

Natural insect repellents may be useful when the prevalence and risk of insect-born diseases are not a concern. Citronella is one alternative, but be aware that it won’t offer as much protection from insect bites as products containing DEET. In addition, garlic and vitamin B supplementation, as well as clove oil, lemon grass, Eucalyptus, and other essential oils may also act as more modestly effective insect repellents.

Once bitten: treating bug bites

Insect bites are not 100% preventable, no matter what method is used to minimize your risk of getting bit. When you or your child experience a bug bite that is not emergent, home treatment is usually all that is needed. Here are some suggestions:

  • Remove the stinger left behind if it is a bee, wasp, or hornet by scraping it out with your finger nail or a credit card. In addition, if you find a tick, use tweezers to grab it at its head, as close to the skin as possible, and pull it off.
  • Rinse and disinfect the skin at the area of the bite.
  • Cold compresses can be used, especially if there is some swelling around the bite.
  • Witch hazel, calamine lotion, or tea tree oil can be applied topically to reduce itchiness.
  • Aloe vera is very soothing and cooling to the skin which can be beneficial for bites that sting or burn.

If you are outdoors and don’t have access to anything, try to find some plantain leaves, crush them, and apply them to the area of the bite.

Further reading and references

California Environmental Protection Agency. “N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET)” (2000)

Environmental Working Group. "EWG's Guide to Bug Repellents"

Ferreira Maia M., Moore S. “Plant-based insect repellents: a review of their efficacy, development and testing”. Malaria Journal. (2011); 10: 1-14.