Insect repellent

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Dress to avoid mosquito bites and keep insects off your skin

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You don't have to douse yourself in chemical bug spray to avoid insect bites. What you wear—or don't wear—can go a long way toward protecting you from bug bites and keeping insects away from your skin. When you dress in naturally insect repellent clothing—anything you already own that can be worn to cover your entire body so that no skin is exposed (not specialty clothing treated with chemical insecticides)—you can forgo synthetic bug sprays, which, while effective, can have harmful effects on health and the environment.

How to dress to avoid mosquito bites and keep insects away from your skin

  1. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts to reduce the amount of skin exposed to mosquitoes and other biting insects.
  2. Wear socks and shoes when outdoors to minimize targets for biting insects.
  3. Tuck your pants into your boots or socks to minimize the possibility of insect bites.
  4. Weather permitting, wear thicker clothing that mosquitoes and other insects cannot bite or sting through.
  5. Wear mesh outerwear, which bugs cannot bite through. Choose only chemical-free mesh outerwear that isn't treated with toxic insect-repellents. Mesh outerwear is available in many styles and designs, and includes covering for the head and face.
  6. Avoid wearing perfume, hairspray, scented deodorant and lotion, and other scented products that may attract biting insects.

Dressing to avoid mosquito bites and keep insects away from your skin helps you go green because…

  • You do not need to use chemical bug sprays. Using products containing the insect repellent DEET may be harmful to fish and other aquatic wildlife, as well as human health.
  • Chemically treated insect-repellent clothing can contain permethrin, which can cause serious harm to fish and other aquatic wildlife, as well as some beneficial insects, such as honeybees.

One of the most widely used ingredients in bug sprays for personal use is N,N-Diethyl-m-toluamide, or DEET, as it's commonly known. DEET is designed to repel, rather than kill, insects. DEET is used by an estimated one-third of the US population each year. Although DEET is approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is a known eye irritant and can cause rashes, soreness, or blistering when applied to the skin. Additionally, DEET has been linked to neurological problems; according to the EPA, at least 18 different cases of children suffering adverse nuerological effects, as well as the deaths of two adults, have been associated with DEET. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have found that DEET causes diffuse brain cell death and behavioral changes in rats.[1]

DEET has been shown to have a negative impact on wildlife and water sources in production and during use. DEET is toxic to birds and aquatic life. DEET has been found in approximately 75 percent of U.S. water sources, including the Mississippi River.[2]

Problems associated with treated insect-repellent clothing

Chemically treated insect-repellent clothing may be treated with the pyrethroid pesticide permethrin, a synthetic version of the naturally occurring pesticide pyrethrin found in chrysanthemums. (Permethrin is a contact insecticide that is not intended to be sprayed directly on skin.) Over 2 million pounds of permethrin are used in the US annually in more than 100 million separate applications, including use in personal bug sprays, and agricultural and residential insecticides.[3]

Permethrin is highly toxic to aquatic organisms and honeybees—concentrations of less than one part per billion can be lethal to some species.[3] Permethrin is so toxic to some aquatic organisms that any detectable level of the chemical in estuarine waters (even less than one part per billion) will likely be associated with negative effects on wildlife, and it can kill some organisms at levels that are not even detectable in water.[4] Although permethrin has a relatively short half-life in the environment, it has routinely been found in ground and surface water at levels that are toxic to wildlife.

Permethrin may cause nervous system complications in humans, ranging from headaches to convulsions and loss of consciousness, as well as asthma attacks, headache, and nausea. Animal studies have indicated reduced fertility and possible immune system damage to fetuses exposed to permethrin, but this has not been observed in humans. The EPA has also classified permethrin as a likely carcinogen.[3]

Controversies

Although DEET has been used by millions of people around the world for over a half-century, there is considerable controversy over its toxicity to humans. Since DEET can easily be absorbed by the skin, there are questions about safe usage over long periods of time, especially at higher concentrations, by pregnant women, and by children.

Glossary

  • contact insecticide: A substance that is toxic to insects when they come into contact with it.

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