Toxic Chemicals in Bug Repellents
Bug repellents are made to kill bugs, so it is natural for them to contain chemicals harmful to bugs. However, it is also important to consider their impact on us and the rest of the environment. Even though we do not directly consume bug repellents, we spray them in the air and on surfaces all over our homes. As a result, bug repellents come in contact with our bodies as well as the environment, thus affecting human and environmental health. Therefore, it is essential for us to consider exactly what ingredients go into these bug repellents and how they can affect us.
Ingredients of Concern
To help you navigate the chemical confusion, we’re identifying a few of the top ingredient offenders:
Cyfluthrin – Linked to deleterious effects  including muscle trembling, behavior changes, and neurotoxicity. It has also been found in one animal study to impair normal liver function. Ecosystem harm includes negatively affecting aquatic life and honeybees.
DEET – Adverse reactions to DEET  include seizures, memory loss, stiffness in joints, headaches, skin blisters, skin irritation, and shortness of breath. Also, it does not biodegrade quickly and has been detected in groundwater.
Permethrin – Linked to neurotoxicity  and, in one study, was a contributing factor to the incidence of seizures. Also, it is toxic to bees and aquatic life.
Pyrethroids – Linked to neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, and increased risk of breast cancer. Most pyrethroid chemicals are also harmful to aquatic life  as well.
Tips for Choosing a Better Bug Repellent
Finding a safe bug repellent can be a real buzzkill. Conventional bug repellents often contain a combination of active ingredients that are listed on the label, and inert ingredients that are typically not labeled. In many cases, chemicals linked to human and environmental harm are found included in these products. Thankfully, there are safer approaches to keep those bugs away:
- Shop bug repellents with the MADE SAFE seal to ensure the product has been fully vetted for substances known or suspected to cause human and/or ecosystem harm.
- Look for these safer ingredients when buying a bug repellent:
- Clove Oil – A natural mosquito repellent, especially effective when mixed with other oils.
- Lemongrass – Another great natural oil alternative to repel bugs. Can also be listed on labels as Cymbopogon citratus or schoenanthus oil.
- Thyme – Another highly effective, naturally-occurring bug repellent.
- Avoid yard bug repellent foggers and coils.
- Avoid outdoor clothing marketed as bug repellent, as it is treated with permethrin.
- To get the full scoop on how to find a better bug repellent and use it well, see our fact sheet, What’s Inside Bug Repellent. Want to dive in even deeper? Read our full report, Bug Repellent: What’s In It?
Note ~ Essential Oils
Remember that just because something is natural does not mean it is safe or non-irritating. When using essential oils, look for pre-made products to ensure they have been diluted properly. Alternatively, if making DIY repellents, always be sure to dilute properly using a carrier oil like fractionated coconut oil or jojoba oil. Some botanicals can be irritating, so try a small patch test before use and avoid any known botanical allergens. As with any new product, pay attention to your body and discontinue use if it is causing irritation.
 Guide, S. (n.d.). Gateway on Pesticide Hazards and Safe Pest Management. Beyond Pesticides. Retrieved June 10, 2023.
 Biochemical and Histological Changes in Rat Liver Caused by Cypermethrin and Beta-Cyfluthrin. (2007, March 26). Sciendo. Retrieved June 10, 2023.
 Chemical Watch Factsheet: Cyfluthrin. (n.d.). Beyond Pesticides. Retrieved June 10, 2023.
 Abou-Donia, M. B. (1996). Neurotoxicity Resulting from Coexposure to Pyridostigmine Bromide, DEET, and Permethrin: Implications of Gulf War Chemical Exposures. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, 48(1), 35–56.
 Toxicological Profile for DEET (N,N-Diethyl-Meta-Toluamide). (n.d.). Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved June 10, 2023.
 Wolansky, M. J., & Harrill, J. A. (2008). Neurobehavioral toxicology of pyrethroid insecticides in adult animals: A critical review. Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 30(2), 55–78.
 Bradberry, S. M., Cage, S. A., Proudfoot, A. T., & Vale, J. A. (2005). Poisoning due to pyrethroids. Toxicological Reviews, 24(2), 93–106.
 Permethrin General Fact Sheet. (n.d.). National Pesticide Information Center. Retrieved June 10, 2023.
 Chemical Watch Factsheet: Synthetic Pyrethroids. (n.d.). Beyond Pesticides. Retrieved June 10, 2023.
 Garey, J., & Wolff, M. (1998, 09 18). Estrogenic and Antiprogestagenic Activities of Pyrethroid Insecticides. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, 251(855).
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public Health Statement for Pyrethrins and Pyrethroids. ATSDR Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved June 10, 2023.
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