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If you’re going to enjoy spending time outside this summer, you’re going to need bug spray, plain and simple. Without it, a camping trip, picnic, or even a walk through the park becomes a harrowing, painful, itchy experience. But what, exactly, makes bug spray so indispensable? For something we all use so often, a lot of us don’t know much about bug spray. What’s it made of? How does it work? Is there a way to make it more effective? If you know how your bug spray works, you’ll be able to protect yourself that much better. Here’s everything you should know about what bug spray is, why we use it, and how to use it correctly.  

How does bug spray work?

How does insect repellent work?Most bug sprays you apply to your body are technically insect “repellents,” not insecticides. That means bug spray doesn’t kill bugs, it just keeps them away from you. Most bug sprays accomplish this goal primarily by disguising your scent. Your body naturally produces carbon dioxide through your breath, pores, and sweat. Mosquitoes and other insects evolved to sense and track that carbon dioxide in order to find food. The chemicals in bug spray cover up the “scent” of carbon dioxide, so hunting insects can’t find you. Along with covering your scent, most bug sprays smell repulsive to bugs, which further dissuades them from coming near you.

What’s bug spray made of?

What's bug spray made of?Bug sprays primarily consist of a pressurized, concentrated dose of their active ingredient. The active ingredient in the bug spray is the chemical that masks carbon dioxide’s scent and repulses insects. There are a number of synthetic and naturally-occurring chemicals commonly used as the active ingredient in bug spray. The EPA has tested and approved the following chemicals as safe and effective active ingredients for bug spray:
  • DEET is the most common active ingredient in bug spray. It’s a colorless, water-resistant synthetic chemical.
  • Oil isolated from the Nepeta cataria or “catnip” plant.
  • Citronella oil extracted from the leaves and stems of various Cymbopogon (lemongrass) plants.
  • IR3535 (or ethyl butylacetylaminopropionate--now you know why it has a number for a name) is another common synthetic chemical ingredient.
  • Picaridin is a synthetic chemical ingredient. The chemicals resemble the natural compound piperine, which is found in plants that produce black pepper.
  • Oil derived from the leaves of lemon eucalyptus trees.
  • 2-undecanone is an oily liquid that can be manufactured synthetically or extracted from rue.  
Some bug sprays may use ingredients that the EPA has not officially evaluated. Some of these ingredients, “minimum risk pesticides”, are proven to be safe but haven’t been confirmed to be effective. Other, illegal ingredients haven’t been evaluated or registered by the EPA at all. Always look for an EPA registration number whenever you purchase bug spray. If possible, we recommend using a spray that uses one of the EPA-tested ingredients listed above.

What are the risks of using bug spray?

Is using bug spray risky?It’s easy to see why so many people are wary of bug spray. It’s a chemical product, and you apply it directly to your skin. DEET, in particular, has been the subject of considerable controversy for its potential toxicity. The EPA evaluates DEET as a “category 3” toxic chemical, meaning it’s “slightly toxic.” Excessive or prolonged use of DEET may cause skin rashes, blisters, and skin and mucous membrane irritation.   According to the EPA, this means normal use of deet as directed on EPA-registered products’ directions. A 2014 study concluded that DEET does not present a health concern so long as it’s used properly. To maximize safety while using bug spray, only use EPA-approved products and pay close attention to the directions. Health problems associated with bug spray almost always stem from improper use of that spray.

How do you use bug spray properly and safely?

how do you use bug spray properly and safely?First, we recommend you only use EPA-approved bug sprays. Follow the directions on your spray carefully. Do not apply the spray more frequently or liberally than directed. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to apply bug spray directly to skin for it to work. You can apply bug spray to skin that’s naturally exposed, but don’t apply bug spray beneath your clothing. Spraying over clothing is just as effective and minimizes your exposure to the bug spray chemicals. Don’t apply bug spray to the face, eyes, hands, ears, inner ear, or mouth. Avoid spraying on any wounds or damaged skin. If you do accidentally apply bug spray to an open wound, wash it out immediately. Only apply bug spray when you’re outdoors and don’t breathe in the spray during or after its application. Wash off bug spray as soon as you no longer require it.   Last but not least: don’t use bug spray when and where you don’t have to. Bug spray should protect you when you’re out and about. You should never have to apply it in your own home. If you have a bug problem that has you reaching for the spray constantly, reach for your phone and call Plunkett’s instead. Even the best bug spray is just a temporary solution, but Plunkett’s can solve your problem for good. Have a great (and bug-free) summer!

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