Insect repellent made from citronella oil was only recently banned by Health Canada, but some suppliers say the product has been blacklisted for a while now.
“We didn’t have to pull it off the shelves,” says store owner Victoria Cottier of Organic Earth Market. “It’s been phased out for us by manufacturers who saw this coming over the last two years.”
Citronella, an essential oil extracted from the lemongrass plant, has been sold and used as a non-toxic insect repellent in Canada for decades. It’s also commonly used in cosmetics and in food. That’s why some are baffled by the sudden targeted action against bug-sprays in particular.
“It’s nonsensical. There are no dead bodies from citronella,” says Cottier. “Anything can be toxic if used the wrong way, from a bottle of whiskey to aspirin.”
Since Health Canada’s database of adverse product reactions began in 1965 there have been no reported reactions to these products.
The reason for the ban lies in product marketing regulations; according to Health Canada guidelines, insect repellent falls under the category of pest control products. In order to be approved by Health Canada, anything that bills itself as a type of pest control “must undergo a comprehensive and rigorous scientific assessment to ensure the product does not pose unacceptable risks to human health.”
In the case of pest control products—which are often highly potent and toxic—absence of evidence against the product is not enough. Health Canada requires that manufacturers prove their product doesn’t cause any harmful effects. However, this proof comes at a cost to producers who mostly can’t afford to finance studies on the same scale as large pharmaceutical groups.
Dartmouth-based naturopath Dr. Jennifer Salib-Huber says that she often recommended citronella products as an insect repellent to her patients, and even used it with her own family.
“It has a long, safe history of use and hopefully we’ll see it back on the market before long.”
But she also warns that essential oils can be as potentially dangerous as any other drug, effecting liver and respiratory function. Despite citronella still being available on its own as an essential oil, she doesn’t encourage people to attempt their own home-brewed bug-spray mixtures.
Instead, she points to other products based from soybean or neem oil. “There’s good data on their effectiveness and safety,” she says.
Whatever you use, as we head into the last stretch of camping season for this year, heed this message from Salib-Huber: No matter the product, it all comes down to how much carbon dioxide you generate and how much heat you emit. “If you’re hot and sweaty and running around, you’ll attract bugs.”