With so many travellers at risk of mosquito borne diseases on their gap years, using a mosquito repellent seems like a no brainer, but which is best? Natural or Chemical? The answer may surprise you.
The debate on whether travellers should use a chemical mosquito repellent on their gap year or a natural mosquito repellent alternative has been raging for years now.
Many travellers swear by DEET and say it is the only repellent that works. Other travellers can’t stand the idea of chemicals on their skin or just don’t like the feel of DEET and head straight for the natural products from the nearest homeopathic shop, or even worse listen to local tales and superstitions.
Superstition, dogma and old wives tales.
Of all the ways travellers can protect themselves from mosquito bites on their gap year or round the world travels, there is also a ton of misinformation about how to stop yourself getting bitten by mosquitoes out there. Listen to a dozen travellers and you will hear a dozen different remedies and folklore on how to repel mosquitoes, everything from eating raw garlic, taking certain vitamins, not showering or any number of talismans, charms, mysterious juju or outright hokum.
Travel to any country where mosquitoes are prevalent and you will hear a dozen different local remedies too.
Let’s get one thing straight first of all. None of these natural homeopathic remedies work.
Eating tons of garlic or spraying yourself with a watered down garlic spray does not work, unless you want to repel everyone in the hostel dorm away from you. Taking vitamins such as B12 or B1 does not work and was probably a rumour started by the pharmaceutical companies to sell more pills!
There are no foods that you can eat or liquids that you can drink that will make you less attractive to mosquitoes, I don’t care what the barman tells you.
And regardless of what the hippies in the homeopathic store will swear by, the lemon juice, plant based liquids or homeopathic remedies do not work either.
Also, while we are on the subject, those wristbands that claim to repel mosquitoes and the high frequency emitting devices are about as useful as rubbing yourself with garlic, so don’t waste your money.
And in case you hear otherwise, just remember that all of these things have been clinically proven NOT to work.
So what does repel mosquitoes?
There are a variety of insect repellents and brands available to travellers, but not all of them are equal, or even effective.
The only repellents that are clinically recommended are those which contain 20% to 50% of the active ingredients DEET, Picaridin, PMD or IR3535.
Out of these four recommended ingredients, DEET is chemically based repellent, Picaridin (or Icaridin if you prefer the non brand name) and IR3535 are synthetic natural repellents, and PMD is a natural by product.
So in essence you have options of both natural and chemical repellents that are recommended as effective for protecting yourself against mosquito bites.
All of these four ingredients are the only ones approved for use in mosquito disease endemic areas by the World Health Organisation and the CDC, as well as the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; and are the only ones recommended by the NHS and health care professionals. All are considered effective to different degrees ans all are considered safe for use.
But which is best and which is most effective?
DEET is the gold standard for mosquito and other biting insect prevention and although some travelers do not like the idea of putting chemicals on their skin clinical evidence suggest that it is the single most effective option and very safe, and is the primary repellent recommended by the Advisory Committee For Malaria Prevention In Travellers (ACMP) for areas with a high risk of malaria.
Repellents containing Picaridin, a synthetic molecule based on a chemical found naturally in black pepper plants, are a good alternative to DEET.
Research suggests that repellents containing at least 20% Picaridin can repel mosquitoes as well as DEET can, but will need to be reapplied more regularly, every 4 to 6 hours. Like DEET, any concentration less than 20% is not considered effective, so always use concentrations between 20% and 50%.
PMD Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus.
PMD (p Menthane – 3, 8 – diol) is a natural by product of the distillation process of the leaves of the Lemon Eucalyptus tree, and Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is a refined oil with a minimum of 64% PMD, which is the active ingredient that works effectively as a repellent.
This is not to be confused with the ‘natural repellents’ lemon oil, lemon essential oil, lemon eucalyptus essential oil or any other alternative, as none of these are approved or recommended in countries with disease carrying mosquitoes.
This is because whilst PMD is present in these repellents, it is not present in a large enough quantity to be considered effective.
PMD Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus has at least 64% PMD, and this provides similar protection to DEET against Aedes, Culex and Anopheles mosquitoes, and it is a good natural alternative to DEET. The only problem is that it does not last as long and will need to be reapplied more often. Every 4 – 6 hours instead of the 6 – 8 needed for DEET.
IR3535 is a synthetic amino acid that has been shown to be effective against several types of mosquitoes that carry Zika, Dengue and other diseases, but is not as effective as DEET at the same percentage and needs to be applied more regularly. It is also not recommended where malaria is a risk factor as it is not effective against Anopheles mosquitoes.
So which repellent is best? Natural or Chemical?
The chemical repellent DEET is still considered to be the gold standard for mosquito repellents, especially in those areas that are at high risk of malaria.
But one of the biggest excuses for not using DEET amongst travellers is that is must be harmful, that because it is a chemical it must therefore always be toxic, and this is simply just not true.
It is extremely important to remember that DEET has been clinically declared safe to use in concentrations between 20% and 50%. It is also safe for pregnant women after the second trimester and during breastfeeding, and is safe for use in children over 2 months.
So there really is no reason not to use DEET other than personal preference, and in this case the Chemical based DEET is the best option.
For those travellers who still do not want to use the chemical based DEET because they don’t like the feel of it, or maybe even just the idea of it, then the synthetic option of Picaridin is a really good option and is as effective as DEET in repelling mosquitoes. The problem is however that it doesn’t last as long and should be reapplied more regularly, and there is not as much clinical data on the safety of Picaridin for young children under three years or travellers who may be pregnant, so is not currently recommended for those groups.
The same is true for the natural alternative of PMD. It can be just as effective in repelling mosquitoes, it just needs to be applied more often.
So whilst the chemical DEET is still considered the gold standard and is technically the best option when protecting yourself from mosquito bites, the ‘natural’ alternatives of PMD and Picaridin are equally great options provided they are applied correctly and per instruction.
IR3535 is an okay ‘natural’ option provided the area it is being used in isn’t malarial and can be recommended in non malarial areas, but for this reason alone it isn’t recommended as often as the others.
The rest of the ‘natural’ and homeopathic repellents can be safely filed under useless.
There really is no logical reason to not use DEET and consider it the best option for mosquito bite protection, but the two primary recommended natural options of PMD and Picaridin are almost as good, and provided they are applied more often can be used just as effectively too.
So any repellent with these ingredients, whether natural or chemical can be just as good as long as they have the recommended ingredients and are used appropriately and as directed.
And don’t forget, travelling the world is a great thing. There are risks out there yes but as long as you have the right information and take the right precautions you can minimise that risk as much as possible. Travel health advice such as this is designed to empower you to travel, not scare you, and should be taken as such.
So get out there, travel! Discover what an amazing world we live in. Just take these precautions and listen to the right advice and you will have no reason to overly worry about any health matters on the road.
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