How does bug spray 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?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.