Itchin’ to scratch that itch.

They say the ants go marching one by one. That may be so. But the flying, nibbling critters — the mosquitoes, the gnats, and the flies — come in swarms.

How to keep them at bay? Unfortunately, many of the insect repellents on the shelves today contain the chemical DEET. Developed by the U.S. Army for use in jungle warfare during World War II, DEET is considered a moderate chemical pesticide and a few studies have shown it to be toxic to some fish species. DEET also works as a solvent, dissolving some plastics, synthetic fabrics, leather, and painted or varnished surfaces. (And I’m supposed to apply this stuff to my skin? Yikes!)

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Grist’s Pick

Quantum Buzz Away Insect Repellent
$5.99, 2 fl. oz.
nonaerosol spray

But potentially toxic chemicals aren’t the only way to protect yourself from becoming a tasty buffet for the next mosquito swarm that comes along. Alternatives to DEET include a number of essential oils, including citronella (used in those tiki-torch candles) and eucalyptol (from the eucalyptus plant). These vary in effectiveness, and generally require more frequent applications than DEET-based formulas. Another option — with quite the loyal fan base — is Avon’s Skin So Soft bath oil, which has a variety of uses but a chem-laden ingredient list (albeit phthalate-free).

So which of these solutions can keep the bugs at bay without leaving you smelling like a medicine cabinet? In order to find out, I gathered some DEET-free insect repellents from my local natural food co-op and my Avon lady and headed out in search of skeeters, gnats, see-ums, and no-see-ums.

Here are my results:

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All Terrain Herbal Armor Insect Repellent
$4.99, 2.0 fl. oz. nonaerosol spray
Active ingredients: oil of citronella, oil of soybean, oil of peppermint, oil of cedar, oil of lemongrass, oil of geranium
Eco-claims: all natural, environmentally friendly, and supports environmental groups

This repellent had a strong, medicine-y lemongrass and peppermint scent that was certainly enough to repel me from wanting to use it again. It also goes on white, which requires a lot of rubbing into the skin, leaving an oily film that doesn’t go away until washed off.

Avon Skin So Soft Bath Oil
$12.50, 16.9 fl. oz.
Active ingredients: mineral oil, isopropyl palmitate, dicapryl adipate, fragrance, dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, bht, carrot seed oil
Eco-claims: none

First things first, this stuff has some questionable ingredients — including mineral oil, which is a petroleum by-product. As its name implies, this is a bath oil — and it smells like one too, with an old-lady-perfume sort of scent to it. Unlike the sprays, Skin So Soft must be applied with a cotton ball or tissue, which, in addition to creating extra waste, is a bit of a hassle. It does, however, leave the skin feeling soft — though quite oily.

Getting bit bites.

EcoSmart Insect Repellent
$5.99, 6 fl. oz. nonaerosol spray
Active ingredients: organic plant oils (rosemary, cinnamon leaf, lemongrass, geraniol)
Eco-claims: all natural, organic, non-toxic

New on the market this year, this spray had a strong but not unpleasant citronella scent — though it did linger long after the initial spray. This product dries fastest of all the sprays tested, leaving fingers only slightly sticky when rubbed off.

Quantum Buzz Away Insect Repellent
$5.99, 2 fl. oz. nonaerosol spray
Active ingredients: citronella oil; also contains essential oils of cedarwood, peppermint, lemongrass, and eucalyptus
Eco-claims: none

This spray left me smelling like a human candy cane with its sweet pepperminty scent. It goes on clear, and doesn’t leave an oily film.

Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent
$5.99, 4 fl. oz. nonaerosol spray
Active ingredients: oil of lemon eucalyptus
Eco-claims: made from a renewable resource (oil from the leaves of the eucalyptus tree)

The lemony scent on this one was enough to prickle my nose hairs and make my eyes water, though this dissipated somewhat within a few minutes. The packaging suggests rubbing it into the skin, and the result is slightly oily to the touch. The convenient snap closure on the spray pump is a nice feature (as opposed to the detachable plastic caps on the other bottles).

The bottom line: All of the products performed fairly well when it came to keeping bugs away, but I did have to reapply as the effectiveness wore off after a few hours. In terms of overall experience, I recommend Quantum Buzz Away Insect Repellent for its sweet pepperminty scent and dry feel. A close second is EcoSmart, though you have to be willing to smell like citronella all evening.

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