Once bitten, twice shy

Sarah-Lou Reekie goes all-out to make herself as repellant as possible
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The Independent Online
Winter's gone and now it's Spring. Love! Where is thy sting?

With apologies to Ira Gershwin, it's summer and far nastier than love's sting is an insect bite which can make us irritable or worse, ill.

With summers getting warmer we will be plagued by more insects than before - so much so that the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has set up a telephone advice line to help deal with the problem.

The majority of insects are capable of just biting us and buzzing off leaving itchy bumps in their wake. However, it is possible, given the right conditions, that the malarial carrying British mosquito will plague us once more. Once more? Yes, before the First World War the Virax Malaria was indigenous to England.

Should these long hot summer days continue the malarial parasite inside the mosquito can quickly develop. A traveller returning from abroad carrying malaria could be bitten by a female mosquito in the UK. When the mosquito then bites another unsuspecting victim it will pass on the disease.

During long dry hot summers even the universally loved ladybird can settle on people and nip viciously. This outrageous behaviour is caused by a lack of moisture in the air together with a population explosion of ladybirds. The aphids which ladybirds feed on become rare and whilst humans are not a good aphid substitute their sweat is thought to be attractive.

Nothing we can do can mask the chemicals of sweat or the carbon dioxide of our breath that insects are attracted to. The female mosquito has a strong natural lust for blood. The only way we are clever enough to re-direct her and put her off our scent is by the serious use of repellent.

So how do you cut through the media hype and choose a pleasant effective, harmless repellent? Nigel Hill, researcher at the Tropical Medicine School which is part of London University has a courageous method of testing the efficacy of insect repellent; which will one day win him a medal for bravery.

He places his bare forearm into a cage of hungry female mosquitoes for 30 seconds while they bite away. He advises that there are a number of repellents on the market and most use the chemical substance known as Deet (diethyltoluamide). It is effective but does have a number of drawbacks because it can react with some plastics e.g. camera cases, spectacle frames and watch straps. A few people also react to products containing Deet and it should not be applied in high doses, nor is application to young children recommended.

There are a few plant based repellents available in Britain- although far less than in the rest of Europe where they seem to have greater faith in natural products.

Several different aromatic oils have been developed from plants and when mixed with skin care emollients such as in the product

Curious to know what others do to fend off insects I asked for comments, with Nigel Hill to explain:

Sue Miter, Curator at The Chelsea Physic Carden, in Central London:"I used to get bitten to bits but I find the best way to keep them away is to travel with a friend whom the insects like more. She is my best insect repellent!'

Nigel: "Given the choice of two people an insect will naturally land on and bite the person whose chemicals in the sweat and breath it fancies most. As a result, anyone living with someone who is highly attractive to insects will get fewer bites.

Ronmey Fraser, Director of London's Neal's Yard - modern day Apothecary in Covent Garden:'We advise our customers to use lavender water or witch hazel mixed with a few drops of citronella. It should be used with enormous care as it contains citral which is phototoxic (reacts with sunlight) and can cause a reaction in some people."

Nigel;"Quite right, please take note just because it's natural does not mean it is harmless. Citronella Oil, for example, has caused skin blistering in some individuals. However despite our reliance on specially formulated repellents, a host of natural products have been doing the same job for thousands of years."

Here are some essential oils, which pests hate:

Citronella, Peppermint, Cinnamon, Geranium, Clove.- which can cause reactions on sensitive skin - Geranium, aand Lavender.

Try this water based splash to make at home:

5 drops of essential oil mixed with 30 tablespoons of Witchhazel 20 tablespoons of distilled water and half a teaspoon of carrier oil. Shake well. Vodka can be substituted for Whitchazel. DO NOT DRINK! To use put into a clean sprayer bottle, do not spray near eyes.

To deter insects coming through the window:Make an arrangement of ribbons, put a few drops of essential oils on them and hang them by a window.

And heed this advice from Uri Geller, the mind over matter guru. "With all my power and all my energy I focus entirely on a troublesome insect - sending it the message to fly away. I can repel it with my mind"

As Nigel Hill says:":The female mosquito's thirst for human blood is overpowering and if she is unable to produce eggs a future generation will be lost forever. In a battle of wills against such a foe MOST peoples' will power would prove insufficient. Perhaps if we all had Uri's power of thought we could succeed. However psychological ability to control our bodies and behaviour may help in reducing symptoms of bites and help resist the urge to scratch.'

Alfresco anti-insect moisturiser: 0181 348 6704

Advice on biting insects (50p per minute): 0891 600270

Neal's Yard, 15 Neal's Yard, WC2 0171-379 7222

Good Essential Oils also available from above and branches,

Witch hazel - any good chemist

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