Spring has sprung, and that means it’s the start of mosquito and tick season. For protection, about one-third of Americans rely each year on the chemical N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide, better known as DEET. But prior to the late 1950s, when DEET was introduced to the public, we mostly used natural bug-fighting methods. For example, when my dad went fishing, his bug-protecting gear included a thin canvas hat with a mosquito netting “veil” and a drawstring collar. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists DEET as “safe” and the most effective insect repellent on the market, many people don’t want to use it because of lingering concerns about toxicity. Safer bets…

It may sound old-fashioned, but the safest and most effective natural way to avoid both mosquitoes and ticks is to use protective netting and wear hats (such as my dad’s) and light-colored, long-sleeve shirts and pants. For tick protection, most people know what to do but sometimes fail to follow the precautions—do a daily skin and hair check (inspect parts of the body with hair very carefully—ticks tend to bite those areas most often)…keep pets off your furniture and bedding…and avoid brushy areas and paths surrounded by high grass or weeds (these are ideal hiding grounds for ticks). If you must spend time in tick-infested areas: It may be necessary to use DEET for maximum protection in high tick season (spring and early summer). If so, apply the repellent on your clothing (read the label for fabrics DEET can damage) rather than directly on your skin. Do the application while you are outside in open air, and use the lowest possible dose. Natural options to repel mosquitoes…

Oil of lemon eucalyptus. CDC scientists consider this plant-derived compound to be as effective as low-concentration DEET for repelling mosquitoes. Studies show that the compound can work for up to four hours, depending on several factors including how much the wearer perspires. Commonly called “lemon eucalyptus,” the repellent is readily available in sprays and lotions (follow label instructions) in stores and online.

Wind. Mosquitoes fly poorly in moving air. Especially during the height of mosquito season (spring and early summer), use a fan on your patio, balcony or any other area where you may be spending time. You can also plan outdoor dining and activities for areas with natural breezes.

Citronella. An essential oil derived from the Cymbopogon plant, citronella is an effective insect repellent that has been in use in the US since the 1940s. Citronella is available in sprays and lotions but must be reapplied at least every 60 minutes. Citronella candles also are available.

Smoke and strong scents. Mosquitoes are repelled by smoke and strong scents such as those from garlic, onion, marigold, oregano and scented geraniums. Anecdotal evidence suggests that eating garlic helps repel mosquitoes. Better: Light candles, such as those with citronella, during an outdoor event, and consider surrounding your deck, patio or other outdoor space with strongly scented plants.

Source: Jamison Starbuck, ND, is a naturopathic physician in family practice and a guest lecturer at the University of Montana, both in Missoula. She is past president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians and a contributing editor to The Alternative Advisor: The Complete Guide to Natural Therapies and Alternative Treatments (Time Life).