Toxic Truths Exposed: Safeguarding Your Outdoor Fun from Bug Spray Chemicals


Clare Kelway DIHom BCHN®

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When it comes to enjoying the great outdoors in our Colorado summer months, one of the biggest nuisances can be the presence of bugs and insects. It is so bad; it has stopped me from going camping! The last time we went camping (or the last time I WENT camping), the minute I jumped out of the car, hundreds of mosquitos decided to jump on every piece of my skin and clothing. Not a great start to what should be a wonderful outdoor experience! Many of us turn to bug sprays to keep these pesky creatures at bay, but have you ever considered the potential dangers of using such products? 

Let’s outline what you should think about, especially when you want to follow a natural, healthy lifestyle for you and your family to protect against outdoor bugs. Have you thought about what chemicals are in your bug spray? 

In this article, we will delve into the toxic truths surrounding bug spray chemicals and provide safe alternatives to protect yourself and your loved ones.

The Hidden Dangers of Bug Spray Chemicals

Bug sprays often contain harmful chemicals that may not only repel insects but also pose potential health risks to us. Some common chemicals found in these products include DEET, Permethrin, and Picaridin. Prolonged exposure to these substances can lead to skin irritations, respiratory problems, and more severe issues with repeated use.

What kind of damage can bug sprays do to our skin?

dangers of bug spray to our skin

Your skin protects your body from external factors, such as physical trauma, pathogens, and harmful substances. Your skin is the largest organ in your body and is a protective barrier. It regulates body temperature, prevents excessive water loss, and protects against pathogens such as conventional bug spray! Moreover, the skin contains specialized cells and structures that aid in detoxification, such as sweat glands that excrete certain waste products and toxins from the body.

And then what about inhaling the fumes from the spray?

Your lungs will not thank you for being exposed to these toxic chemicals. Your lungs are the center of your respiratory system bringing oxygen into your body and expelling carbon dioxide. However, when we breathe in toxins, harmful particles, and pollutants, they can cause severe damage to our lungs and other organs.

Toxic substances can irritate and inflame the airways. In Colorado or other high elevations, you combine the toxins of bug sprays with the high altitude, which could be a toxic combination for your health. Think about your kids. Children are exposed at a young vulnerable age to these toxins. I know this isn’t what you want for their health! Breathing in unwanted toxins and high elevation camping leads to less oxygen in each breath you take. Not a happy picture for your lungs. Let’s explore the top 3 chemicals we are concerned about in bug sprays! 

What is DEET?  

Deet bug spray

DEET stands for N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (a chemical mouthful), and is a common active ingredient in many insect repellents. It is widely used to protect humans from mosquitoes, ticks, and other insect bites.

DEET effectively repels many insects, including mosquitoes, ticks, flies, chiggers, and gnats. When applied to the skin or clothing, it creates a barrier that makes it difficult for insects to detect and land on the treated area. DEET-containing repellents come in various concentration levels, typically ranging from 5% to 100%. Higher concentrations provide longer-lasting protection but may not necessarily be more effective at repelling insects. 

The overall effectiveness of DEET is why it is used so widely in conventional bug sprays. However, it is a chemical with associated health risks. Manufacturers print on the label that DEET is generally considered safe for use according to the instructions, but is it safe for you and your family? 

Potential side-effects of DEET

DEET may cause skin irritation, eye irritation, neurological effects, and allergic reactions. Do not apply it directly to your children’s hands to prevent accidental ingestion. 

Since you are reading this article, I have to assume you are interested in a natural way of life. So DEET may not be a chemical you want to use on your skin or your family’s skin or at least restrict your use of DEET. You may prefer alternative options and at least review this usage tool by the EPA before use on your family.⁠

What is Permethrin?

Permethrin is a synthetic chemical (1) widely used as an insecticide and insect repellent. Permethrin is commonly used in various forms, including sprays, creams, lotions, and treated clothing. It primarily repels and kills insects like mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and mites.

When applied to clothing or gear, it can provide long-lasting protection, even after multiple washes, which should really bother you. Permethrin is still present on clothing after many washes? That is scary stuff!  

Permethrin is often used by outdoor enthusiasts and military personnel to prevent insect bites. It is not intended for direct application to the skin but can be used on clothing and other fabric surfaces. It is toxic to aquatic life (2), so why do we wash clothes sprayed with Permethrin? Does your local water treatment plant remove Permethrin from your water supply to protect you and aquatic life? And what if your clothing is treated with Permethrin, and then you go fishing and stand in the water? You should avoid contact with water if your clothes are treated with this chemical. 

Just the potential dangers of letting you know not to apply directly to your skin should be enough to know that this is a chemical to avoid for you and your family! 

It causes eye and lung irritation, and allergic reactions, which is an excellent way to say your body is allergic to this chemical!

And what about your 4-legged friend? Permethrin is used in many products for dogs, including collars, shampoos, sprays, and powders. These products are designed to protect dogs from ticks and other parasites, reducing the risk of tick-borne diseases and discomfort caused by tick infestations. So how safe is this for your dog? You decide. 

What is Picaridin? 

Pircaridin, or icaridin, is a common name for the chemical compound 1-(1-methylpropoxycarbonyl)-2-(2-hydroxyethyl)piperidine. It is a synthetic insect repellent that has been developed to protect against insect bites. Pircaridin was first introduced in the 1980s and is considered an effective alternative to other insect repellents such as DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide).

One of the significant advantages of Picaridin is its broad-spectrum activity against various insects, including mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and other biting pests. It is known for its efficacy and relatively low toxicity, making it a preferred choice (3) for those who are sensitive to DEET or seeking a more environmentally friendly option.

Side effects of Picaridin are skin irritation, eye irritation, and allergic reactions, which are the same as the other chemicals we have discussed. You should avoid these chemicals if you are sensitive or struggling with any health issues

Picaridin is not a forever chemical. It is biodegradable, which means it can break down naturally in the environment over time, unlike PFAS, which is highly resistant to degradation. If you are a regular camping family wanting to enjoy the beautiful outdoors, it is imperative you find some safe options for your family. So let’s explore natural alternatives to these chemicals, what those might be and how to protect you and your family from the bug irritants. 

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Embracing Natural Alternatives to Chemical bug sprays

natural alternatives to chemical bug sprays

Fortunately, we have safer and more natural alternatives to traditional bug sprays. Consider using essential oils like citronella, lavender, and eucalyptus, which are known to repel insects without the harmful effects of chemical-based sprays. 

Essential oils are natural bug repellents due to their aromatic and volatile properties. Many of these oils contain compounds that insects find unpleasant, deterring them from coming close or landing on the skin. Here are some commonly used essential oils and their effectiveness as bug repellents:

  • Lavender Oil: Besides its calming aroma, it is known for repelling mosquitoes, flies, and moths.
  • Citronella Oil: One of the most well-known bug repellents, citronella oil is effective against mosquitoes, gnats, and other flying insects.
  • Lemon Eucalyptus Oil: This oil contains a compound called PMD (para-menthane-3,8-diol), which is as effective as DEET in repelling mosquitoes.
  • Peppermint Oil: Peppermint oil is a natural deterrent for ants, spiders, and other crawling insects.
  • Tea Tree Oil is a natural antiseptic. It helps repel mosquitoes, flies, and other insects.
  • Cedarwood Oil: Cedarwood oil is effective against ticks, fleas, and other bugs.
  • Thyme Essential Oil: Effective against mosquitoes(4). This study demonstrated how it is more effective than DEET against mosquitoes.
  • Basil Oil: This oil can repel mosquitoes and flies effectively.

When using essential oils as bug repellents, it’s critical to dilute them properly. You can use coconut oil or almond oil as a carrier oil. Before applying them to the skin, you put a few drops of essential oils into the carrier oil. Undiluted essential oils can cause skin irritation.

These essential oils provide protection and emit pleasant fragrances, making your outdoor experience more enjoyable.

DIY Bug Repellents

If you prefer a hands-on approach, creating your own repellents is a fun and rewarding option. This DIY repellent is practical and safe for regular use. Customize the scent to your liking!

Here’s a simple DIY bug-repellent spray recipe using essential oils:


  • 10-15 drops of essential oil (e.g., citronella, lemon eucalyptus, lavender, or a combination)
  • 1/4 cup of carrier oil (e.g., coconut oil)
  • 1 cup of water


  • Mix the essential oil(s) with the carrier oil in a small spray bottle.
  • Shake well to ensure proper blending.
  • Add the water to the mixture and shake again.
  • Spray the repellent on exposed skin and clothing, avoiding the eyes and mouth.

Remember, while essential oils can be effective natural bug repellents, their protection may be shorter than chemical repellents like DEET. Reapply the spray every few hours for continuous protection. Also, remember that some people may be sensitive to certain essential oils, so it’s best to do a patch test before applying them widely. If any irritation occurs, discontinue use.

Homeopathic remedies for bug bites during your camping trip

homeopathic remedies for bug bites

Homeopathic medicine provides a gentle, safe, and effective alternative for your family, especially as a first line of defense when you experience an issue such as irritating bug bites or nerve injury from bites. The word “homeopathy” comes from the language of the ancient Greeks and means “similar suffering,” perhaps better known as treating like with like. Homeopathy is the principle of “like cures like,” which means that a substance that causes symptoms treats similar symptoms – it works like a magnet to help your body dispel the toxins and deal with the trauma effectively. 

Apis is a particular remedy to know about, and I wouldn’t be going anywhere without it. If you have a homeopathic kit, it will contain Apis.  

Apis is a remedy made from bee venom diluted and succussed many times. It will expressly relieve the symptoms of inflammation, redness, and itching that come from bug bites.  There are studies (5) showing the efficacy of Apis Mellifica as an anti-inflammatory homeopathic medicine.

Having hypericum/calendula tincture available is helpful for bug bites. You can apply a few drops of hypericum/calendula tincture to insect bites and stings, including mosquitos, gnats, wasps, and bees. The tincture will relieve itching and reduce swelling. Re-apply the mixture as often as needed. 

Dressing for Defense against bug bites

dressing for defense against bug bites

Another effective way to safeguard yourself from bug bites is to dress appropriately. 

Wearing long-sleeved shirts, pants, and socks can be a physical barrier against insects. 

Opt for light-colored clothing, as dark colors tend to attract bugs. 

Environmental Protection

It’s not just ourselves we need to protect; it’s also the environment. Traditional bug sprays with harsh chemicals can adversely affect ecosystems, harming beneficial insects like bees and butterflies. By switching to eco-friendly alternatives, we can enjoy bug-free outings without causing harm to the environment.

Tips for Avoiding Bug-Infested Areas

Prevention is better than cure, and avoiding bug-infested areas can significantly reduce insect exposure. Mosquitoes, for instance, are most active during dawn and dusk, so plan your outdoor activities during different times to minimize contact with these pests. When that swarm of mosquitoes attacked me, it was dusk. However, sometimes if you have traveled a few hours from home, you may find yourselves setting up camp at sunset, so be prepared. 

Additionally, avoid stagnant water sources, as they are breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Transitioning to a Bug-Free Camping Future

Understanding the dangers of bug sprays is vital for you and your family. Knowing about natural alternatives that provide a safe and effective solution for you and the environment is critical to staying healthy while having fun during the hot summer months. 

Create your DIY bug repellent; get yourself some 3-in-1 summer comfort, and avoid known bug-infested areas as much as possible. 


Enjoying the beautiful outdoors, whether in Colorado or elsewhere, should never come at the cost of our health or the environment. By being aware of the toxic truths behind bug spray chemicals, we can make informed choices to safeguard ourselves and our surroundings. Embrace natural alternatives, dress wisely, and opt for eco-friendly options to ensure bug-free fun without any worries. Let’s step into a future where outdoor adventures are enjoyable and safe for everyone.

Remember, knowledge is power, and now armed with this information, you can embark on your next outdoor escapade confidently, free from the fear of harmful bug spray chemicals. Happy exploring!


  1. Drago, B., Shah, N. S., & Shah, S. H. (2013). Acute permethrin neurotoxicity: Variable presentations, high index of suspicion. Toxicology Reports, 1, 1026-1028.
  2. Günal AÇ, Tunca SK, Arslan P, Gül G, Dinçel AS. How does sublethal permethrin effect non-target aquatic organisms? Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 2021 Oct;28(37):52405-52417. doi: 10.1007/s11356-021-14475-4. Epub 2021 May 19. PMID: 34009577.
  3. Shutty B, Swender D, Chernin L, Tcheurekdjian H, Hostoffer R. Insect repellents and contact urticaria: differential response to DEET and picaridin. Cutis. 2013 Jun;91(6):280-2. PMID: 23837149.
  4. Park BS, Choi WS, Kim JH, Kim KH, Lee SE. Monoterpenes from thyme (Thymus vulgaris) as potential mosquito repellents. J Am Mosq Control Assoc. 2005 Mar;21(1):80-3. doi: 10.2987/8756-971X(2005)21[80:MFTTVA]2.0.CO;2. PMID: 15825766.
  5. Bigagli E, Luceri C, Bernardini S, Dei A, Filippini A, Dolara P. Exploring the effects of homeopathic Apis mellifica preparations on human gene expression profiles. Homeopathy. 2014 Apr;103(2):127-32. doi: 10.1016/j.homp.2014.01.003. PMID: 24685417.

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Clare Kelway Experienced Functional Medicine practitioner specializing in natural health solutions.

Clare Kelway

Functional Medicine Practitioner

Metabolix Health Clinical Director, Clare Kelway BS DIHom HHP BCHN® is recognized as an expert in functional metabolism. She is a  Functional Medicine practitioner with decades of experience in natural health solutions.  She specializes in optimizing your metabolism, hormones, and gut health. Her own health turnaround in her 30s led to her career in functional medicine. She is the Founder of Metabolix Health, a virtual functional medicine practice in Erie, Colorado. A lifelong learner and researcher, her passion is helping clients reverse their health issues in the simplest way. She is a candid, direct communicator who clients often refer to as a “breath of fresh air”. She champions their journeys and says her reward is watching her clients restore their health and regain their vitality for life.