Insect repellent – does natural beat DEET?

Click to play video: 'DEET or all-natural insect repellent – which is better?'
DEET or all-natural insect repellent – which is better?
WATCH: Health Canada says whether you choose an all-natural bug spray or one with DEET is determined by what your needs are – May 18, 2018

Summer is almost here, and you know what that means: so are the bugs.

As you enjoy warm summer nights, you can expect to be pestered by mosquitos, and increasingly in much of Canada, ticks.

Public health officials across Canada recommend applying insect repellent to protect yourself against bites and the itchiness, irritation and occasional disease that they cause.

There are a variety of repellents on the market. Here’s what you should know about them.


Formulas designed to repel mosquitoes fall into three main categories: DEET, icaridin (also called picaridin) and natural formulations such as essential oils.

The ingredients that Health Canada says have a repellent effect are:

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  • DEET
  • Icaridin
  • Soybean and citronella oils
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus and its main active ingredient P-Menthane-3,8-diol
  • A mixture of essential oils like lemon, eucalyptus, pine needle, geranium and camphor.

Health Canada says that children younger than 12 shouldn’t use a product containing DEET daily, and children younger than six months old shouldn’t use it at all. To protect infants, they recommend using a mosquito net to enclose a stroller or crib.

But do natural products work as well as DEET and icaridin? Kateryn Rochon, an entomologist at the University of Manitoba, is skeptical.

“Overall, I would say that some ‘natural’ compounds that show some efficacy, but in all cases, it is very short-lived,” she said. “Since people do not re-apply their protection every hour or two, using some of these products can give a false sense of protection.”

No product can offer 100 per cent efficacy, said Stacy Rodriguez, a research assistant at New Mexico State University, who has spent eight years studying mosquitoes and testing different repellents. “It doesn’t exist, or I’ve never seen it anyway.”

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But in her tests, the two products that came out on top were formulas that contained DEET and oil of lemon eucalyptus. “DEET is very popular but oil of lemon eucalyptus is very comparable to DEET,” she said.

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She recommends that you stick with a spray though, and not rely on a wearable device, bracelet or other such things. With few exceptions, they just didn’t work very well.

“These products just simply do not protect people. They’re wasting their money and they’re putting themselves at risk for mosquito-borne illness,” she said.

One of Rodriguez’s studies found a surprising repellent though: Victoria’s Secret perfume – specifically the “Bombshell” scent.

“It worked really well. It definitely had a very strong effect in repelling mosquitos,” she said. Although she tossed it into the study not expecting much (it was her lab partner’s perfume), she was surprised at the results.

The catch – you’d probably have to wear a lot of it, enough to perhaps repel people as well. “You are going to smell pretty strong.”

WATCH: Victoria’s Secret perfume is an effective mosquito repellent

Click to play video: 'Victoria’s Secret perfume is an effective mosquito repellent: study'
Victoria’s Secret perfume is an effective mosquito repellent: study


Health Canada only lists two ingredients on its website that protect against ticks: DEET and icaridin.

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A Nova Scotia woman is trying to change that though. Lisa Ali has invented a formula called Atlantick – which contains a combination of lemongrass, witch hazel, and jojoba oil.

She’s now working with researchers at Acadia University to test its efficacy, which is a necessary part of getting it approved by Health Canada.

In her tests so far, DEET was 100 per cent effective, and her lemongrass formula was 80 per cent. So she’s working on bringing that up. “We know lemongrass works but what compounds in the lemongrass are they deterred from?” she said.

“Can we extract that somehow, still naturally, and make them even better and get closer to that 100 per cent?”

In order to protect her children from ticks in her area, she thinks she’d have to put DEET on them all the time. She didn’t want to do that, so she started working on her own formula. “There are a lot of products available but none have been studied,” she said.

The research was important to her.

“There’s no way I was going to take that chance. People can say it works and all that but I still needed to know.”

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She estimates that she’s still at least two years away from being able to market her spray as a tick repellent.

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