Perhaps it’s the cold weather and blizzards, but bed bug paranoia in New York has waned a bit, at least in the news and blogs. For a while, it seemed like a major retailer was closing its doors in shame every week to deal with an infestation. Hotels, too. What you don’t hear about are all the apartments and private homes. Bed bugs are a big business, and scams are rampant. Do bed bug sniffing dogs really do the job, or are most of them carefully trained actors? Many of us are looking for a magic chemical, one that keeps bed bugs away, but one that doesn’t kill us and our pets in the process.
Certain essential oils and herbs are known to repel certain insects. CB I Hate Perfume makes a closet spray in lavender or cedar oil to repel moths and a mosquito spray (a mix of lavender, bergamot, geranium, marigold, oregano, cedar and patchouli). And what a wonderful thing: smell great while staying bug-free. While there isn’t any information about the efficacy of either one, it’s commonly held that mosquitoes and moths avoid these things. Besides, the stakes aren’t high, with all of the other products on the market.
Bed bugs are another story. “My building has bed bugs but I don’t!” a gleeful Horst Rechelbacher said to me last fall. The Aveda founder was hosting editors and reporters at his Greenwich Village penthouse to talk about his current venture, the all-organic Intelligent Nutrients line of hair and skin care products. “My essential oils keep them out,” he continued in his thick Austrian accent. Sure, his home smelled strongly, but pleasantly herbal. I was skeptical, but he insisted. Could it be true? Does anyone want to gamble on it?
The internet has plenty of suggestions: mixtures of rosemary, lavender, thyme, mint, eucalyptus, clove, black walnut, and other oils are all mentioned. Logic says that if any of this worked, we’d all be using it. But with how lucrative nasty chemicals and exterminator treatments can be, maybe there isn’t much incentive to test affordable natural repellents.
I ordered the Bed Bug Patrol Luggage Spray from National Allergy for $11.95 (3 oz.). It’s a clove and peppermint essential oil mixture in sodium lauryl sulfate, citric acid, glycerin, oleic acid, and water. The clove and peppermint are strong scents here, and when I e-mailed Bill Carlson, the owner of Nature’s Innovation, the maker of the product, he was amused that I would approach it from a cologne point of view. “The bed bug repellent smells decent but I would hardly call it great,” he wrote. I wouldn’t wear it on my skin, but it’s quite pleasant at a distance. A little like a strong herbal toothpaste.
Carlson added that National Allergy had been carrying his natural anti-bed bug sprays (there is another one, the Bed Bug Patrol Natural Bed Bug Repellent Spray, that’s made of 5% catnip oil, lavender essential oils, soybean oil and isopropyl alcohol for $14.95/3oz.) for five years and attached some data from an independent testing firm in Georgia.
The test on the clove and peppermint oil spray showed that direct sprays killed bed bugs at a rate of 98% within 30 minutes. I’m a little skeptical here: what else would kill a bed bug when sprayed directly on it? Bleach? Alcohol? Vinegar? Whiskey? What we’re after is something that keeps them away in the first place. And maybe this product does—my home doesn’t have any so far. That I know of. Yet. Who knows?
Carlson added that he didn’t know of any exterminators that used his products in the New York area, but lots of retailers carry it.
There is anecdotal evidence supporting Carlson’s products, but there are also some that say it does nothing.
I’ve reached out to a few entomologists, including Stephen Kells at the University of Minnesota, an expert who has been quoted in the New York Times. No one returned my messages. My question for them was simple: are there any “natural,” non-pesticide repellents and bed bug killers that have been proven to work? The jury is still out.