Natural Foods Merchandiser

Never mind the DEET - bug off naturally

As spring arrives, health-conscious consumers will once again pause as they reach for the bug spray. They must weigh the concerns of chemicals like DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) in commercial sprays with the risks of mosquito-borne viruses such as West Nile and tick-borne Lyme disease. Fortunately, natural body care companies are providing chemical-free alternatives that don't smell toxic and are gentle enough for children and pets. Whether your customers seek a lotion or spray insect repellent, you can help them choose the right product.

Beyond DEET
Essential oils are the active ingredients in natural repellents. "The scent of the essential oil confuses the mosquitoes and doesn't allow them to find you and bite you," says Bruce Schennum, vice president of Eugene, Ore.-based Quantum Health, which makes the Buzz Away line. And while DEET is effective, studies show that essential oils hold their own when it comes to deterring bugs. A 2001 Iowa State University study found that catnip essential oil is 10 times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has given a nod to the active ingredient in oil of lemon eucalyptus as one of just three products recommended against West Nile virus (the others are DEET and the chemical picaridin).

Need more PC know-how? Visit NFM's Personal Care Guide.

Soybean oil is another promising ingredient. "Most top-selling brands are using soybean oil," Schennum says. A study published in the July 2002 New England Journal of Medicine reported that the best non-DEET competitor featured a 2 percent soybean oil repellent.

Staying power
"With naturals you want to apply more often," says Melinda Garland, marketing coordinator of W. S. Badger Co. in Gilsum, N.H., which makes Anti-Bug Balm. Some natural-based repellents last longer than others. Studies show Buzz Away Extreme Formula is as effective as DEET-based Off! Skintastic, repelling mosquitoes for up to 8.5 hours. (The original Buzz Away lasts for up to two hours.) The extreme formula mainly differs from the regular formula in that it contains soybean and geranium oils. "The regular version is a little less expensive and it's perfect for most users" for backyards and picnics, Schennum says. Buzz Away Extreme is targeted toward outdoor enthusiasts, he says, adding, "We have research showing it repels ticks."

Clinical research on All Terrain's Herbal Armor repellent shows it to be "100 percent effective for over two hours," and at four hours, still "over 77 percent effective," says Rene Boudreau, marketing assistant for the Sunapee, N.H.-based company.

The formula is water- and sweat-resistant and microencapsulated, which help it to stay effective longer, Boudreau says.

Essential essential oils
Catnip and lemon eucalyptus oils are the active ingredients in BUGz Be Gone, made by Encinitas, Calif.-based Touch of Earth. "There are compelling studies on the use of these essential oils being effective," says founder Nancy Brillault, an herbalist and certified aromatherapist. She originally created her product to fill her family's needs. The essential oil blend "works against black flies, ticks, chiggers, gnats and no-see-ums," she says.

Catnip takes center stage in Boulder, Colo.-based WishGarden Herbs' Catnip Oil Spray, which contains 4 percent of the essential oil, along with soybean oil. "A lot of essential oil insect repellents are 2 percent," says company owner and formulator Catherine Hunziker. "It's about as safe as you can get, even among naturals," she says. And yes, "Cats go gaga over it." The one unlikely caveat: "We don't know whether wild cats are attracted to it in the same way" as domestic cats, Hunziker says. So to play it extremely safe, the company labels Catnip Oil Spray as "backyard" spray rather than for use in wild areas or on trails where wild cats may roam.

Essential oil of citronella, a standard in candles to ward off pesky insects, is the star ingredient of several natural bug repellents. "Citronella has been found to repel bugs" in government studies, says Badger's Garland.

The pleasant-scented Anti-Bug Balm from Badger contains 5 percent citronella oil and 2 percent of both lemongrass and cedar oils, along with rosemary and geranium oil. On track to become U. S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic by this summer, the balm was shown by a third-party study to be "efficient at controlling mosquitoes for an hour and a half," Garland says.

All Terrain's Herbal Armor contains citronella oil, along with soybean, peppermint, cedar, lemongrass and geranium oils.

Form and function
Retailers should become familiar with the different insect repellent formulations to help customers find the product that best fits their needs. For example, all Terrain's Herbal Armor comes in a pump spray, lotion and a lotion with SPF 15. BUGz Be Gone is available in both a paraben-free lotion as well as a pure concentrate. "The lotion is easy and you can throw it in your beach bag," Brillault says, but "the concentrate form is cheaper —you can do a myriad of things and it will last longer." Your customers can add the concentrate to their own lotions or oils, sunscreens or spray bottles —even aromatherapy diffusers.

Other customers may prefer Badger's Anti-Bug Balm, which has the same skin-soothing emollients as other Badger balms. And Buzz Away Extreme comes in a convenient towelette as well as squeeze and spray bottles. Towelettes are not only small enough to put in your pocket, "They are great for kids; you can put it on a kid's face without spraying on essential oils," says Quantum Health's Schennum.

Safe for furry and little alike
Many customers will initially search out DEET-free products for their little ones —and their pets —and many companies are designing products with this in mind. All Terrain's Herbal Armor Insect Repellent offers versions for kids, pets and horses. As with any insect repellent, it's advised that you first apply the product to your hands, and then to your children so that they won't rub it in their eyes.

What to know about natural bug repellents

  • Natural repellents typically contain essential oils.
  • As with any mosquito repellent, a skin-patch test is a good idea for anyone with sensitive skin.
  • Most are safe for infants over six months of age, but be sure to read the label.
  • Natural formulas require more frequent application.

Simone Haber is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 4/p. 26,30

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