Summer is the time to enjoy the outdoors. There's the sun, the camping, the backyard crab feasts, and unfortunately, there's also the pests.
Mosquitoes, ticks, bees and hornets can make themselves uninvited guests at outdoor gatherings and activities, inflicting pain, sparking allergic reactions, spreading disease and sucking the life from the party.
Keeping the unwanted bugs at bay takes serious effort but consumers are not alone in the fight. A host of bug-off products are on the market: he usual sprays and rubs, as well as protective clothing and insect-repellent patches. With a bit of strategy and insight, outdoor lovers can improve their line of defense.
"We're constantly applying something," said Kerrie Husband, of Reisterstown, Maryland, who lives on four wooded acres with her family — her husband, Eric ,and two young daughters, Autumn and Addison.
Seeing ticks, mosquitoes or other pesky bugs near home is not unusual for them, but it's no reason to stay inside, Husband says. She encourages her children to play outdoors, they participate in nature camps and the family belongs to Irvine Nature Center.
"We want our kids to go outside. It's just a matter of taking precautions so they don't get sick," said Husband, who offers bug repellent to guests at her home and makes sure the family dog and cats are protected, too.
All good strategies, say experts, who caution that not only are the bugs a nuisance but that they can also be harmful. Ticks are known to cause Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other diseases. Mosquitoes can carry West Nile Virus among other diseases, and bees, hornets and wasps can induce shock in those allergic.
Husband tries to keep it natural, opting for DEET-free bug repellents for mosquitoes and ticks, and vigilance when it comes to checking for ticks.
DEET, a chemical developed by the U.S. Army in the 1940s, was the subject of a safety review by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1998. The EPA found no health concerns from normal use of DEET as long as label directions were followed. Still, some consumers remain wary.
Mike Raupp, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland College Park known as the "bug guy," said DEET-based repellents are effective for ticks and mosquitoes, but gaining in popularity are those that fall into the green and eco-friendly category.
"DEET is the gold standard for repellents, but there are several studies that show people want an alternative to DEET," said Raupp.
He said one alternative is picaridin-based products. Picaridin is a chemical repellent that protects as well as DEET but offers a low odor and cleaner feel. It was approved in the U.S. in 2005 but has been available in Europe, Latin America and Australia for years.
Other options include natural substances like oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is as effective as DEET but for a shorter period of time. BioUD is a repellent based on a substance found in wild tomatoes. Bio Block is made from soybeans.
Consumer Reports recently put several bug repellents to the test in fighting mosquitoes and ticks. The top-rated products, listed in the July issue, include Off Deep Woods Sportsmen II, Cutter Backwoods Unscented, Off FamilyCare Smooth & Dry, 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent 8, Repel Plant Based Lemon Eucalyptus, and Natrapel 8-Hour with picaridin. All but the Repel and Natrapel contained DEET.
Rob Mardiney, director of education for the Irvine Nature Center, said that while DEET-based repellents are the most effective, consumers also have to balance that with it being potentially harmful to the environment and personal health.
"We get a lot of questions about ticks, and people are worried," said Mardiney. "We try to have them not worry so much. If you walk our trails, you may pick up a tick, but that can happen anywhere."
At the nature center store, Buzz Away Extreme is a popular natural alternative. The product has active ingredients that include soybean oil, geranium oil and castor oil and says it protects for up to four hours for mosquitoes and more than two hours for ticks.
Mardiney suggests performing full-body tick checks at the end of a day spent outdoors. If the tick is removed within 24 hours, the chances of contracting Lyme disease are dramatically reduced.
Joe Hopkins, assistant store manager at REI in Timonium, said most of his customers still opt for DEET products. In Maryland, a repellent with about 30 percent concentration of DEET for adults is typically all the protection needed, he said.
Another product that is also popular at REI is the line of Sawyer permethrin-based repellents used to treat clothing, lasting for up to six washings.
"We're selling quite a bit of it. You can spray it on your clothes and let it dry," said Hopkins. "Or iron it in and it triples the durability so it's good for over 20 washings. You don't have to worry about applying it daily."
Experts remind consumers not to forget the first line of defense, the time-tested remedies that include removing standing water to eliminate breeding grounds for mosquitoes, keeping a distinct barrier between a mowed lawn and the start of woods or meadows to help control ticks and wearing light colored clothing so you can easily spot the critters.
Raupp also suggests controlling mosquitoes during backyard get-togethers by placing a fan or two outside to create a steady breeze. Mosquitoes can't fly in winds of more than four or five miles per hour.
"Create a light breeze across your patio, and the mosquito bites are going to go way down," said Raupp. "It's a pretty simple, very green approach."
When it comes to bees, hornets and wasps the strategy is simple, say experts. Move out of the way or shoo them away instead of aggressively squatting at the buzzing insects.
"If you act aggressively, it will return the favor, and you will be the loser," said Raupp.
Dos and don'ts
- Do wear long sleeves and long pants when possible.
- Do use insect repellent and sunscreen at the same time. The general recommendation is to apply sunscreen first, followed by repellent.
- Do seek medical attention if you experience the symptoms of an allergic reaction, which may occur within seconds to minutes, include sneezing, wheezing, hives, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, difficulty breathing and itching or swelling.
- Do remove a tick as soon as possible. Early removal of a tick is important because a tick generally has to be on the skin for 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease.
- Do store insect repellent out of children's reach.
- Don't wear heavily scented soaps and perfumes.
- Don't use insect repellent on babies. Repellent used on older children should contain no more than 10 percent DEET. Oil of eucalyptus products should not be used in children under 3 years. DEET should not be used on infants less than 2 months old.
- Don't use insect repellent that's meant for people on your pets.
- Don't wear bright colors, which attract bees.
- Don't spray insect repellent on the face.
Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
The CDC recommends using products with either DEET, Picaridin, IR3535 — a synthetic pesticide, or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Some recent insect-repelling products on the market include:
OFF! Clip-On: It provides a battery-powered fan that circulates an odorless repellent and easily clips on a belt, purse or chair, offering protection up to 12 hours without ever having to spray anything on the skin. The active ingredient is metofluthrin.
Don't Bite Me! Patch: Applies to the skin and metabolizes in the body to reduce the human odor that is attractive to insects. Protection can last up to 36 hours and is waterproof. Vitamin B1 and aloe are the active ingredients.
Cutter Backyard Bug Control: Provides protection against mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, hornets and more. Attach the spray concentrate to a hose and point and spray as directed. The product kills bugs for up to eight weeks and one 32-ounce bottle covers a 5,000-square-foot outdoor area.
Bug Guard Plus: Avon, through its popular Skin-So-Soft line, offers this repellent with IR3535 or picaridin.