i love camping and the outdoors, nature and grassy wooded areas. being bug bite prone though, is a surefire way for me to become a debbie downer. as a kid spending a summer in the philippines, i remember once that my legs were so eaten up and raw that my aunt took me to a dermatologist to check out my poor limbs; they gave me a cortisone cream, which didn’t do a damn thing. most conventional bug bite creams on the market are cortisone based which still don’t do a thing for me (and are toxic to boot). my skin is so sensitive to these bites that they usually quickly turn into huge bumps that make me look deformed (no joke), and are sooooo itchy that they distract me from enjoying myself in said nature, putting me in a cranky mood. 🙁
over the years, with extensive research and travel, i think i’ve figured out my magic combination of bug bite prevention and relief! and they are, for the most part, non-toxic. different bugs exist in different places, so these may not be as effective in one locale than another, depending on your own skin and where in the world you are. but if you have to use DEET, use it. it’s better to be safe and not get malaria than to try and be all hippy with your natural remedies, imo.
BEFORE YOU GET BIT – PREVENT
so you know an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure bla bla bla. in this case, it’s totally true. i am not above putting on a hat with a bug net on it, and in most cases find that diligently applying and reapplying my anti-mosquito potions are enough for me.
KNOW THE BUGGERS’ TIME + PLACE
mosquitoes are notorious for being the most active at dawn, dusk, and around still water + swampy areas. they also like to get our ankles and feet while sitting at dining tables. being mindful of these times and locales have been helpful for me to know when i should stay on guard, inside or perhaps take the seat at the end of the table vs in the corner against a wall.
FOR THE LOWER BODY – PICARIDIN LOTION
i like the sawyer picaridin insect repellent lotion to put on my legs and find that once i put this on before going out for the day, i don’t need to reapply, so long as i don’t get wet. it’s important to speak on lotion vs spray because applying lotion with your hands ensures a more thorough application, thus making it stay on the skin better, last longer, and won’t easily sweat or rub off like a water-based spray (the same can be said about any other spray product, SPF included). picaridin is an ingredient that is synthesized in a lab (as most skincare ingredients are) that is modeled after an extract from the chrysanthemum flower, and also has been shown to be just as effective as DEET, without the toxicity or fragrance (check out the EWG’s stance on it here).
FOR THE UPPER BODY AND FACE – GREENERWAYS ORGANIC BUG SPRAY
i am not a fan of chemicals in general (toxicity, smell, general grossness and support of those industries), and will use chemicals only when i have to (like using the picaridin lotion above). i much prefer using natural products as much as possible and in the realm of bug spray, will stick to using a natural one on my upper body, to avoid inhaling or ingesting said toxins. if you eat with your fingers, are doing any smooching or are handling babies/kids, it’s best to be exposed to a natural bug spray than a toxic and bitter tasting one.
for years i have loved using the greenerways organic bug spray, the only one on the market i’ve found to be water-based AND organic. most natural ones on the market are in a base of cloggy ass soybean oil and are just oily, sticky and gross. plus, it’s a small family out of pennsylvania that makes this stuff, so all the more i am happy to support another small biz. i’ll decant this into a smaller spray bottle to take with me for reapplications, since natural products work best with repeated usage over time.
the way i apply this is to spray it onto my hands, and then rub it onto the areas affected. remember, actually massaging product into your skin is going to yield a much more effective and long lasting application.. as well as prevent the product from 1. being wasted, and 2. being sprayed onto surfaces other than your skin, including rivers, lakes and oceans. (i have seen people put on spray sunscreen while standing in freshwater lakes and it is disgusting how much ends up in the water.)
note: i find that their 4oz bottle is difficult to handle, so decanting the liquid into their smaller 1oz (or a different shaped spray bottle, muji and rainbow grocery has great ones) is necessary for me.
AFTER YOU GET BIT – TREAT
DON’T SCRATCH OR PICK AT IT (sound familiar?)
the key is to preventing more itching, scarring and swelling is to RESIST SCRATCHING. the less you scratch, the less annoying it will be, the less scarring will occur (from scratching the skin open, leaving you with scabs) and the faster it will heal, i promise! the same can be said for acne 🙂 here are some things you can do instead:
some hard, heavy slaps on the bumps as they appear may be enough to numb the nerve endings that make it start itching.. this is a quick fix until you can get access to the following:
just as you would to relieve inflammation for acne, icing is one of the best remedies to employ. it numbs the nerve endings and instantly relieves the itching – with relief lasting (for me, usually) at least a couple of hours afterward. also, if you are getting bug bites you’re probably in a hot place, so getting ice cubes – or just something cold at least – should (theoretically) be easy. i have no shame in digging an ice cube out of my water glass at a restaurant and icing the bumps on my legs, arms, etc for relief. i’ll just wrap it with a napkin to soak up the dripping water as best i can.
anything that’s got camphor or menthol or peppermint is going to have that cooling sensation that’s great for numbing down itching. when i was in thailand, every convenience store i went to had some kind of a tiger-balm thing, be it a salve in a jar or an oil in a roller stick. i am a big fan of the oil roller sticks because it makes for a mess-free application, and is multi-purpose. i used them to relieve headaches, shoulder pains, sore feet and legs from standing around for hours (like i did when mom and i were in bangkok for the late rama 9’s cremation ceremonies). know that it can take a few minutes for the itching to go away after applying these oils, so have patience to allow them to work their way into the skin, calming those itch nerves. this is why i like to ice first to quickly numb, then apply these oils to prolong the itch relief.
when i get heat rash, this also helps immensely with managing the itching associated with it, speeding up healing. for my own skin, i find washing the affected skin with an anti-bacterial soap, keeping the skin as dry as possible (no applying oils or lotions, even aloe gel!) and relieving the itching with a muscle oil rub stuck is the speediest way to recovery.
in the US, you can find saje’s peppermint halo. i LOVE this stuff and use it everyday. i roll it onto my head, temples, neck and shoulders to help keep me calm in a busy day of work, in traffic or when i’m bored. it has that minty effect to help calm down any itchiness from bites!
i went camping at the south yuba river a year or two ago and totally forgot all my bug bite stuff. and of course, our campsite was buzzing with skeeters and were having at it on my face. so i went on a hunt to a “natural” store in town and thought to look for a bug bite salve. one lady behind the counter suggested i mix up some clay and essential oils to apply, but the other lady remembered an all-natural toothpaste they had which was basically the same thing, just fancier (plus already mixed up and ready to use). i was skeptical but desperate so i bought the stuff and lo and behold it worked. so well in fact, that it’s actually changed my life.
preventing bug bites can be tough, but so long as you have the right tools to manage the itching, it’s not that bad at all. a little of this paste goes a long way, leaves no residue or stain, and is soooo effective. for me, just a dab of this pretty instantly calms down itching. i forget about the bite, and get on with enjoying my nature experience. it’s really been amazing how much quality of life enhancement and sense of relief this little product has given me. it comes in a glass 2oz jar, so i scoop some out into a smaller plastic jar to keep in my day bag and reapply as needed. one jar has literally lasted me years, and i freak out if i can’t find or forget it on my travels.
24 HOUR RULE (?)
so maybe i’m making this up, but it seems for me that most bites – so long as i don’t go crazy waking up those itch nerves by scratching them as soon as i get them – itch only once in a 12- or 24-hour cycle. i get bit, i employ any or all of the above post-bite tactics, and then i’m not bothered by them for another 12 or 24 hours. then after a few days, the itching subsides completely and the bites heal up and away. observing and knowing this has somehow calmed my nerves whenever i get into an itching frenzy.
THE AFTERMATH – PIGMENTATION
so hopefully you didn’t scratch the hell out of your skin, creating a wound and thus scarring. but if you did, you can still employ the tricks above and if you must, gently rub-and-not-quite-but-kinda-scratch around the bite/wound to relieve any itching as it heals. if there is pigmentation left behind, it will likely go away on its own, or you can use any of your active sS skin products (like your mandelic toner, skin brightener or vitamin a serum) to speed up the brightening of the spots left behind once the scab heals and falls off.
i hope these tips help you out and make natural outdoor time less miserable. these discoveries were a serious game changer for me and i hope it helps others too!