Consumers have been choosing natural ingredients over synthetic ingredients for decades, and the result has been the continued growth of the massive natural and organic products industry. Large companies continue to learn about "green chemistry" and smaller brands are able to enjoy both a competitive advantage and employ higher price points against mainstream competition. This is all well and good, but a lot of natural product categories have failed to deliver on effectiveness (just look at the many studies on nutritional supplements). And so now that it is high summer it begs the question, "Are natural bug repellents effective?"
As a former natural products industry executive, it pains me to say that despite the good intentions of marketers, natural bug repellents have proven to be largely ineffective. In fact the most comprehensive study to date was conducted back in 2002 involving 16 products, and the most effective repellent in the study was one that contained DEET (diethyltoulimide), which most folks erroneously confuse with DDT (no relation). DEET offered protection from mosquitoes for exactly 5 hours. But what about the natural stuff?
The product I sold back in the late '90's was made of pure citronella and water, and the most effective citronella-based product in the study protected participants for only 20 minutes. Ouch. This is rather shocking, and it begs the question, "Why does the FDA allow marketers to make claims that aren't true?" The truth of the matter is that the FDA is more likely to be concerned about what goes into your body than what goes on your body. Personal care products are far less regulated than ingestibles, but one would think that making claims that are not only unsubstantiated but flat out untrue would catch the attention of regulators or at least a non-profit organization with an activist bent and a smart lawyer on staff.
Most of these marketers aren't unscrupulous and are really trying to do the socially responsible thing by offering what they feel is a less toxic, natural alternative to the synthetic products that they consider potentially harmful. They truly mean well. The trouble is that, if the products don't really work, there are ethical considerations and probably legal considerations. But perhaps the study was flawed in some way, and perhaps natural insect repellents are more effective now than they were 15 years ago. We need some new information, but the facts aren't encouraging. Regardless, this is something consumers should consider if they truly want protection from potentially-harmful insects versus something that might be better for them and the environment.
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