For generations, herbs have been used as repellents for insect bites by humans and animals alike. In more recent history we have become more concerned with what chemicals we use on our skin and our families. Insecticides are toxic chemicals that are known to be damaging to populations of frogs, bees, and even to humans and our pets. Whether the concern is the possibility of insecticide poisoning or the cumulative build-up of these chemicals in the body, many people are going back to herbs as insect bite repellents. Here are a few herbs that humans have traditionally used to reduce insect populations and topically as a repellent.
The leaves and bark of the neem tree have been used for centuries. In Ancient India it was used for many different ailments and applications. Neem twigs were chewed on to protect teeth from decay. They also used to place neem leaves in beds, books, food storage areas, and closets to keep bugs away. Neem works by messing with the hormone systems of biting bugs, though scientists aren’t sure about why this is the case. This confuses them, they forget to eat and reproduce, eventually dying off. They call this effect “antifeedant” which just means that the bugs refuse to eat. A 2012 study done at the King Institute of Preventive Medicine in India found that a preparation of neem brought down symptoms and sped up the recovery of patients affected by dengue fever. Obviously, the antimicrobial and insect-repellent actions of neem are quite potent.
Eucalyptus is another herb that has a potent, natural insecticidal action. Eucalyptus trees are often planted in large numbers in areas that are regularly affected by malaria. The incidence of malarial fever greatly reduced in these areas. This is believed to be due to the odour that the tree produces. Eucalyptus oil is also helpful in reducing populations of mosquitoes that are known to carry malaria. In a field study in the Bolivian Amazon, eucalyptus-based insect repellent even provided more protection than the chemical insecticide Deet! Not only is eucalyptus safer for humans than Deet, it’s also better for the environment.
Most insects find the smell of clove unbearable, including mosquitoes, fleas, ticks and even bedbugs. Leaving crushed clove buds in areas where ants travel is a good way to scare them off. A study comparing 38 different essential oils against mosquitoes showed that clove protects against insect bites for the longest duration with 100% repellency over a 2 to 4-hour period against 3 different types of mosquitoes. Avoid using clove oil around cats and dogs. Clove bud extract is a much safer method of using this herb as an insect repellent as it is water soluble and doesn’t linger in one place on the skin or coat.
Lemongrass is closely related to citronella, which most people know for its ability to keep mosquitoes at bay. Not only is lemongrass effective at repelling mosquitoes and house flies, it is shown to be toxic to biting insects. The FDA suggests that the best tick repellents are mosquito repellents. This is because the same ingredients that repel mosquitoes also work on ticks. Lemongrass and citronella seem to have the most clinical studies proving efficacy against insect bites.
Cedarwood oil has a long history of use in humans. It was used by ancient Egyptians in their embalming practices because of its ability to keep insects away. It is toxic to fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes and the scent helps to repel other insects. There are videos on Youtube of cedar sprays working on ticks. First, they slow down, then die within 5 minutes of encountering cedar oil. Cedarwood oil is non-toxic to humans and dogs. Some dogs have allergies to certain types of cedar so be sure to monitor your dog for signs like watery eyes, runny nose, and excessive scratching.
More people are using herbal medicine and essential oils to repel fleas and ticks. This reduces the number of chemicals that their family and pets are exposed to. As always, it is important to monitor your pets closely when giving them something new, or when trying a new product on them. Consult an integrative vet if you are interested in moving away from conventional medications and chemicals for controlling pests. Cats are especially sensitive to essential oils as they lack the liver enzyme responsible for breaking down certain active ingredients. Some holistic or integrative vets do argue that essential oils can be very effective healing modalities for cats and dogs, though this is fact is hotly debated on the internet.
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