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Monday, August 10, 2009

Repel Mosquitoes Without Repelling Brain Cells

Its summer time and if you’ve been hiking, camping, or outdoors at all this year, chances are you’ve run into some of those bloodsucking wee beasties that are the bane of many an outdoor adventure: mosquitoes. For most people choice of repellant is a no-brainer: you pick up some spray or lotion containing DEET (N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), slather it on and fuhgeddaboudit. However, this no-brainer may actually be pushing you towards actually becoming a “no-brainer” by causing lasting cognitive deficits by damaging neurons in some key areas of the brain.

According to The Duke University Medical Center News Office, studies have shown that use of DEET can result in brain cell loss and significantly impaired performance in tasks involving muscle control, coordination and strength. In addition, research shows evidence of significant neuron degradation in areas of the brain controlling movement, focus, learning, and retaining information. One disputed demonstration of the risks of prolonged DEET use is the so-called “Gulf War Syndrome” suffered by veterans returning from military service in the “Desert Storm” campaign. Standard issue for soldiers in this campaign was a 75% DEET insect repellant. The symptoms reported by some soldiers are consistent with those effects found in studies on long-term exposure to DEET.

Researchers caution that the potential effects of long-term exposure to DEET include breathing problems, sluggishness, pain in the joints and muscles, loss of memory, headache, muscle weakness and shakiness. Risk of these effects seems to be amplified when DEET is paired with some types of medication (including OTC) and other pesticides (such as permethrin). Researchers urge limited exposure for adults and strongly discourage use of DEET on children.
The good news is that there is an extremely effective alternative that is plant-based, natural and carries no risk of melting your brain: Lemon Eucalyptus Oil. Of the three active repellant ingredients approved by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as effective against mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus (DEET, Picaridin, and Lemon Eucalyptus), Lemon Eucalyptus is the only one that is plant-based and natural.

I can hear the skeptics mumbling now, “Great, Tree-Hugger, I’m not going to donate a pint of blood on my next trip just so I can be Earthy and Natural…”, but this stuff really works! Science, Semi-Science, and Not Even Close to Science Personal Anecdotes follow:
According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, M.S. Fradin and J.F. Day showed the average time of protection for Lemon-Eucalyptus Oil base repellant to be 120 minutes with a maximum of 317 minutes. This is compared to an average result of 302 minutes for a 23.8% DEET product.

In June 2007, Backpacker Magazine published a repellant comparison using the same “arm-in-cage” technique as the NEJM study (its semi-science because the only used one tester (victim) in the study). In this test, the Lemon Eucalyptus lasted 240 minutes before the first bite, out-performing the 30% DEET product by a full hour! While two concentrations of DEET above 30% (34.4% and 100%) outperformed the Lemon Eucalyptus, it also melts plastic and brains.

Not Even Close to Science Personal Anecdote
In July 2008 Steve Howe and I spent 8 days on a thru-hike of Utah’s Uinta Highline Trail. An excellent repellent testing ground, the High Uintas provided the backdrop for an informal repellent face-off between Steve’s DEET and my Lemon Eucalyptus (which Steve slandered on night one). The results? I win. Seriously though, while the skeeters were ever-present, barring the wind-ripped high passes, I had no problems with bites while fishing alpine lakes or meandering mucky moose marshes. I did, however, out of sheer laziness, borrow Steve’s DEET on our final night out. While I did not suffer any bites, I did wake up with an extremely swollen and painful left eyeball, complete with gory broken blood vessel giving the effect of an ocular stab-wound. (again, it melts plastic and brain cells).

In addition to not making your brain or tent melt, Lemon Eucalyptus Oil actually makes stinky hikers smell better and is derived from a natural, renewable resource (see my blog on the trees in the Smokies for why that’s a good thing). Its also lacks the greasy feeling that other repellants, lotions, and balms can have). Lemon Eucalyptus Oil is currently available in a repellant produced by Repel (who is not reimbursing me in any way (but I’m open to offers)) and comes in a 4oz pump-spray bottle for a MSRP of $7.25. Seems like a no-brainer to me...

Top Picture Public Domain. Fishing Picture (c) Steve Howe, All other (c) Peter Rives including the one of a skeeter biting my leg (dedication!)


  1. Thanks for the info! I'm never using Deet again, that's for sure.

  2. Peter,

    I hope this stuff works on New England black flies, too. I will report back after your mother and I return from the wedding in Vermont next weekend.



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