Natural Summer: A Brief Guide to Bug Bite & Sun Protection

Summer is here! A favourite season for many, it presents some unique conditions for our bodies to experience, including a variety of insects that enjoy their yearly human feast and the increasing heat of the sun. As a result, the necessity for both bug bite and sun protection is greatly increased.

Unfortunately, this can contribute to a rise in chemical and toxin exposure, that heightens our stress levels as our bodies cope with processing and eliminating them. For many people, the reduction of our exposure to chemicals and toxins is an important step in maintaining optimal health. And, for pregnant women, infants & young children, it even more vital. Let’s take a look at what that means for this time of year.

Bug Bite Protection

In Canada, the biting insects we’re most often wanting to avoid are black flies, mosquitoes & ticks. Remember, that part of bug bite protection can include avoiding the times of day & locations where these critters are most active:

  • black flies are active in daylight hours during springtime & early summer
  • mosquitoes can bite at any time of the day, and are more active at dawn and dusk
  • ticks are often found along trail edges, mostly in wooded areas or tall grass

Several commercial insect repellents contain a chemical called DEET, a registered pesticide. It is absorbed through the skin and passes into the blood. Most of the health concerns with DEET centre around the skin and nervous system with the potential of creating dermatitis (skin inflammation) and challenges with neuro-behavioural tasks requiring muscle coordination. There have also been case reports of associating DEET with seizures in children. This chemical also crosses the placenta, raising concern over it’s use by pregnant women.

With these possibilities in mind, Health Canada has phased out all insect repellants containing more than 30% DEET. In addition, Health Canada and the Canadian Pediatric Society advise against the use of DEET in children under 6 months of age. Solutions of up to 10% DEET applied up to once daily on children age 6 months to 2 years and up to 3 times daily for children up to 12 years of age has also been suggested by these groups. Daily use of DEET products on children up to 12 years old, for more than one month should be avoided.

Icaridin containing products have been found effective in repelling mosquitoes & ticks, but similarly to DEET, are not recommended for infants under the age of 6 months.

If you are choosing to use DEET or icaridin containing products, follow these guidelines:

  • Do not apply over cuts, wounds, or irritated skin.
  • Do not apply to hands or near eyes and mouth of young children.
  • Do not allow young children to apply this product.
  • After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water.
  • Wear long sleeves and long pants and spray on clothing, as opposed to directly on skin. Wash repellent treated clothes as soon as possible or keep outside living areas to reduce exposure.
  • Apply sparingly.
  • Do not spray in enclosed areas and avoid inhaling

Soybean oil can be effective for repelling black flies & mosquitoes. There are no age restrictions for its use, but should be avoided by individuals with soy allergy.

There are a number of effective, less toxic, insect repellents available. They need to be applied more frequently than other repellents, but they do not carry the same health risks. Many contain a variety of plant essential oils – lemon eucalyptus, rose geranium, lemongrass, eucalyptus, cedarwood, catnip. Though safer for topical application to the skin (as long as they are pure products & safely diluted!), it is important to avoid the eyes and mouth when applying these products, & be sure to keep them out of reach of children.

Instead of topical use, you can consider diffusing the relevant essential oils in the area you are sitting in outside. This approach won’t prevent bugs from biting but may be helpful in keeping the bugs away from the area.

(A Brief Aside: Essential oil product quality is variable, depending on the producer. Ensure the products you’re exploring are pure. Companies should have no problems showing you third party testing results to confirm this purity!)

In addition to repellants:

  • In your back yard, use yellow outdoor light bulbs. They are less likely to attract insects.
  • Use a fan outside when there is little wind – mosquitoes aren’t very strong flyers.
  • When planning your gardens, plant mosquito repelling plants like lemon balm, catnip, basil and lemon geraniums around outdoor sitting areas.
  • Also consider using bug shirts and hats, as well as mosquito nets as other nontoxic forms of protection.

For additional information & tips on prevention of tick bites, check out ‘It’s Spring! A Season for Birdsong, Tulips & Ticks!’

Sun Protection

With the changes to our environment and the thinning of the ozone layer, protection from chronic skin damage by the sun’s rays has become more important to our health in recent years.

There are two categories of sunscreen available: those that provide a physical block, like zinc oxide & titanium dioxide, & those that provide a chemical block, like PABA, benzophonones & cinnamates. With their make up of naturally occurring minerals, physical blockers work as a barrier against sun damage. Chemical sun blockers work by absorbing ultraviolet rays before they reach the skin’s surface.

Over time, research has accumulated that suggests some of the chemical sun blockers possess hormone disrupting activity, specifically, mimicking estrogen. Other research suggests that as we rely heavily on the use of sunscreens, our vitamin D production, for natural immune & hormone balancing, is reduced.

The Moral of the Sunscreen Story

Up to twenty minutes of sun exposure daily (for fair individuals, just until your skin starts to turn pink) supports your natural vitamin D production. With any additional time spent in the sun, protection from chronic sun damage of the skin is important.

Explore sunscreens with more naturally based ingredients. The Environmental Working Group completes an annual, detailed assessment of thousands of sunscreens on the market and has compiled this information in their Guide to Sunscreens. This wonderful tool can help you determine if the sunscreen you are using is causing more harm than good. Try searching your current sunscreen to see where it rates! Many of the best sunscreens listed (least toxic while still providing sun protection) are available at your local health food store.

Beyond Sunscreen

Most sunscreens are recommended for use on individuals 6 months or age & older. For infants under 6 months of age and to reduce the amount of sunscreen application needed for (squirmy!) infants over 6 months, toddlers & young children, UV clothing & beach tents can be helpful. For clothing, full ‘bodysuits’ & wide brimmed hats maximize skin coverage. The tents are handy for the beach but also for use in parks or sunny yards.

Sunglasses are an important addition for protecting the eyes. The earlier you can get a child used to wearing sunglasses, the better! Infant & toddler sunglasses often use a soft velcro strap to secure them in place.

Protection from Overheating

Remember that infants & young children overheat easily in hot, humid weather & often can’t tell us exactly how they are feeling.

When outdoors:

  • Remaining in cooler, shady areas is ideal.
  • Dress little ones in light clothing.
  • Stay hydrated. Hydration for infants 0-6 months comes from their milk feeds (breast milk &/or formula). Often in hot weather, these little ones will want to take in smaller, more frequent feeds. Hydration for infants 6-12 months should also focus on breast milk &/or formula but small amounts of water can be offered. Children 12+ months can be offered water frequently through the day.
  • Supervised water play is both fun & refreshing for older infants & young children. It can be as simple as a small wash tub with a little water & a few sizes of cups &/or sponges.

When indoors, fans & air conditioning can be helpful.

There are definitely a few considerations to make when preparing for these warmer days. Integrating practices for bug & sun protection as part of the daily routine are great ways to keep everyone in the family healthy & comfortable.