By Maria Noël Mandile
One of the best ways to stop itches is to avoid them. While DEET effectively staves off bugs for as long as five hours, it comes with a price: DEET can cause rashes, eye irritation and has been linked to neurological damage. The trick to natural repellants is that you have to try a variety to figure out what best masks your tantalizing human scent, then apply them frequently, herbalist Rosemary Gladstar says.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Susun Weed, author of New Menopausal Years, swears by yarrow tincture, which she’s used effectively in the woods of New York, even in the bug-rich evenings. Pick the flowering tops of yarrow and cover them in vodka for six weeks, strain and put in a spray bottle. You also can use the yarrow tincture available in stores.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) essential oil. This modest plant made headlines two years ago when scientists at Iowa State University found that nepetalactone, a compound in catnip, was 10 times more effective than DEET at repelling mosquitoes in the lab. To use, mix 2 to 5 drops of the essential oil in 1 teaspoon of olive oil and apply to your skin, avoiding your eyes.
Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) essential oil. This classic anti-bug oil does a great job deterring bugs, even in the deep woods, Gladstar says. However, the oil is toxic when ingested, and she recommends applying it to your clothes and hat, not your skin directly. Andrea Candee, author of Gentle Healing for Baby & Child, opts to dilute it — 10 drops in 1 ounce of almond oil is safe, she says.
Other essential oils. Eucalyptus, lavender, citronella and geranium essential oils also can be used, though you may need to apply them frequently. “Nothing works for me any better than essential oil of lavender, and it smells so good,” says Nancy Phillips, co-author of The Village Herbalist.
Beat Bothersome Bug Bites
“The thing about itching — it’s a stagnant problem,” 7Song explains. Mosquitoes insert irritating saliva into your skin. The saliva reacts in your skin, making you itch. “The [bug saliva] is localized in your body. Your goal is to neutralize it.” Most of the anti-itch remedies for poison ivy and oak also work for bug bites.
Plantain (Plantago spp.). “I don’t know of any itch that can stand up to plantain,” Weed says. Plantain is a favorite bite and sting remedy of many herbalists, and for good reason. It stops the itch and pulls the bug’s toxins out of your skin. (It also works amazingly well for bee stings, Flint says.) “If it’s growing where you live, bend down, pick up a leaf, chew it (or crush it with a rock) and put it on the itch,” Weed says. “You should experience virtually instant relief.”
Lemon. When people come to 7Song covered in bug bites, he gives them a calming tea (such as skullcap or passionflower) to help soothe their nerves and then a piece of lemon to rub on the bites. Lemon juice seems to stop the allergic reaction to bug saliva. Baking soda and apple cider vinegar work similarly.
Tobacco. “One of the best things for pain or itchiness is tobacco,” 7Song says. “It can be anything — Virginia Slims or [high-quality] organic tobacco. If you have an itch … just take tobacco, chew it, put it on there and it neutralizes the pain.” He warns that chewing the tobacco can be unpleasant.
Lavender and peppermint essential oils. These essential oils help stop the itching and disinfect the bite. You can apply them directly to the skin or add them to other mediums like clay. Peppermint oil can irritate some people’s skin, so test it on a small patch of your skin first; you also can dilute it in a teaspoon of olive oil or another vegetable oil.
Sangre de grado (Croton lechleri). For a more exotic remedy, turn to sangre de grado. This Peruvian herb’s name means “dragon’s blood” in Spanish, and Abascal learned about it while attending a class in South America. “I went down [to Peru] and did not realize — nobody told me — they had chiggers,” she says. “I managed to get all of these chigger bites that were itchy beyond belief.” She tried steroid creams and other remedies; nothing worked. Then a local shaman came to the rescue. “He showed me this tree and whacked it with his machete. Then he put [the resin] on the bites. It was just incredible in terms of soothing the itching.”
This resin is hard to find in stores, but it’s worth it when you do: It works on the toughest bites, from chiggers to fire ants to mosquitoes — any bite that burns and itches. It also contains some antimicrobial compounds, so it helps fight infections caused by the bites and itching.
Yellow onion. “The onion’s de-toxifying sulphur compounds help neutralize the poison of the bite or venom of the sting, reducing inflammation,” Candee explains. Just slice open an onion and rub it on the bite. Keep doing it as often as necessary until the itching stops.