Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

Get the Itch Out (Natural Bug Bite Relief Options)

June 26th, 2014 · 16 Comments · Green Living, Natural Health

Tons of Natural Remedies for Bug Bites

Ah, the skin of summer – grubby feet, farmer’s tan lines, bruises and scrapes on little legs, and red, painful, swelling bumps – often which become scabby, nasty looking things on children.

Mosquito bites (or whatever the biting bug du jour is in your climate) are nearly inevitable and not any fun at all.

I understand that in our state of Michigan, the mosquito season is serious this year. I saw many advertisements in lake areas for companies that would spray  your whole yard with insect repelling chemicals (ick), but personally I’d rather take my chances with natural solutions.

If and when those DIY insect repellents or commercial options let a little biter through, what to do about the itch?

A reader asked the question recently:

"Do you have a home remedy or natural remedy for mosquito bites?"

Of course with three kids, we have some ideas for that:

You bet! I like to use hydrated Redmond Clay (aff link on Amazon) myself, which you can do DIY by buying the dry clay or buy a ready-made tube, nice for on the go travel. (I’ve had bad luck with home-hydrated clay getting musty or moldy, perhaps because the jars I use aren’t 100% clean? I’d spring for the tube, personally. It lasts a looooong time!)

You can also go super simple and just make an "X" over the bite with your fingernail. It actually kind of works to make the itch go away! One or two of the natural insect repellants I tested can also be used as an itch reliever.

I shared the reader question on Facebook as well, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to now have this awesome list of remedies from the wise women in the KS audience – believe me, as helpful as this natural bug bite itch relief post might be for you, I’m really just collecting them all so I have an easy place to find them for the next mosquito attack! Winking smile

The answers fell into five general categories of battle plan, from the scientific (usurping your body’s natural pain receptors) to the old-fashioned home remedies that seem as random as rainfall – but probably work! Ask your grandmother…

Tricking Pain Receptors to Overcome the Itch

A few people suggested utilizing one’s pain receptors to overcome the itch – basically overloading on minor pain so you don’t feel the itch anymore:

  • Heat up a cup of water and dip a metal spoon in it. Touch the hot spoon to the bite. Supposedly it breaks down the stuff that make you itch. (not recommended for children)
  • Hold a blow dryer over the spot until it heats up and gets painful (not burning, obviously). At first it will itch more, but once the pain receptors begin to take over, the itching is gone for hours. Often you only need to do this once or twice (hours apart) before the bite goes away completely.

Essential Oils on Bug Bites

What essential oils to use as a natural remedy for itchy bug bites

Try one of the three essential oils KS readers suggested:

  • Peppermint essential oil takes the swelling down right away and the itch disappeared too for me.
  • I use either tea tree oil or lavender essential oil for bug bites.
  • A dab of straight lavender essential oil works wonders! Takes away all itching.
  • And for the DIYers out there, here’s a homemade anti-itch remedy using essential oils from Joy in My Kitchen.

Mountain Rose Herbs is a great place to get essential oils, and there are many different brands on Amazon of course…KS readers reviewed a number of doTERRA essential oils right here.

Note: Anytime you’re using essential oils, do your research. Some are not recommended for children under two (like eucalyptus) or pregnant/nursing women (like peppermint) – just because they’re from plants doesn’t mean you can use them with abandon. Most of them need to be applied with a carrier oil, for example, not straight (called "neat" in the EO world).

EOs are powerful little treatments, but you need to know what you’re doing. This source was very eye-opening for me. Also, many people may have read to avoid lavender and tea tree oils, especially for boys, because they’re estrogenic. One of my favorite blogger researchers demonstrates that they’re not.

Plants and Herbs

Plantain leaves for bug bites

(Photo from Calin Darabus on Flickr)

If you fancy yourself an herbalist, backyard gardener or homesteader – or if you just want something you might be able to find in your own backyard for free – you’ll love this simple itch solution which also often reduce redness and swelling if you or your kids have a particularly rough reaction with insect bites.

  • "We have issues with major swelling, redness and itching on our kids if they get a bite. What’s worked for us is a plantain salve." (There are many options for purchase, including a few we have in our home from Rainwater Farms and both the Healthy Skin Salve and Creature Comfort from Graham Gardens, and of course there’s always something on Amazon, just be sure to check the other ingredients).
  • Plantain weed grows all over (not the banana-like fruit from the grocery; see photo above), so you can probably find some and make your own salve with plantain infused oil, beeswax, and vitamin E (Google for recipes) or a poultice – just chew it or mash it and put the leaves directly on the inflamed insect bite. A reader says: "My son loves to find plantain, chew it up and stick it on bites himself. Plantain is a weed that grows just about anywhere and is free. No burning vinegar or hot spoons required and completely natural." (Note: Hosta is also referred to as "plantain lily," but this does not seem to be the medicinal herb.)
  • More info and photos: 1, 2, 3, 4

Old School DIY Home Remedies

You’d be likely to find these natural remedies (or sometimes not so natural, but simple and quick nonetheless) circa 1950s and before or in a book about what your grandmothers did that still works. I love the variety, much of which you can find in your kitchen — in the words of the readers:

  • My grandma use to meat tenderizer on bites.
  • A trick I learned from an Indian momma — just make a paste with salt and rub it on. Works!
  • Epsom salt can ease the symptoms of mosquito bites. Make a compress by soaking a washcloth in cold water that has been mixed with Epsom salt (2 tablespoons per cup of water), then gently apply to the bite area.
  • We make a paste out of water and baking soda. Works great!
  • White vinegar, provided you haven’t scratched it open. I still use it even then… LOL probably about the pain receptors!
  • A dab of clear fingernail polish.
  • A dab of toothpaste. We don’t have the "natural" kind, but it works fine.
  • We use plain old ice (or an ice pack). Reduces swelling and numbs the nerves to stop the itching.
  • An ace wrap compresses and eases itching.
  • Witch hazel (on Amazon, but I’d check the dollar store!) for redness and swelling.
  • Don’t forget just trying that "X" over the bite with a fingernail. It’s quick if nothing else!
  • UPDATES included below from comments:
  • Plain black tea bags (wet on the bite)
  • Diatomaceous earth (made into a paste)
  • At least two mentioned apple cider vinegar
  • Dab of lemon juice
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Rub any dry bar of soap over area inflamed
  • One reader says add some spit to the “X” trick!
  • This one is purported to stop even nasty chigger bite itches!
    In a clean bottle (I use an empty witch hazel bottle):
    - one part witch hazel
    - one part mint mouthwash (the real kind with menthol and other natural ingredients, NOT the one with the chemical ingredients…you can make your own if you want)
    - one part water
    - any and all of the essential oils for soothing (lavender), antiseptic (tea tree), and healing that you have on hand in whatever quantity makes sense to you.

    Shake well, rub in well with cotton balls. Relief is in seconds. Carry a small bottle with you and apply as often as needed.

  • For sleep and just a few fire ant bites, put a bit of fluff from a cotton ball in a bandaid (get enough stuck in the adhesive so it can’t fall out) put it over the bite, soak cotton (use an eye dropper if you have one) with the above solution or just plain ACV.

Common but Questionable on the "Natural" Scale

When I was a kid, the only thing I remember for itchy bug bite relief was the pink stuff – you know that snazzy look with pink dots all over your legs and arms? Rock on, 1980s. Winking smile

The question is this: Is calamine lotion a natural enough solution to the itches of summer? It comes in "clear" now, so the beauty hazard is erased…are there any health hazards?

Main Ingredients in Calamine Lotion

The active ingredients include zinc oxide, less than 1% iron oxide, and often pramoxine HCl.

The zinc oxide is not a concern to me at all; it’s my favorite main ingredient in natural sunscreens and is rated safe even for infants under 6 months old. Iron oxide also is not a huge concern, especially in tiny quantities.

It’s the pramoxine HCl that I needed to look up.

"Pramoxine is in a class of medications called topical anesthetics. It works by stopping nerves from sending pain signals." (source)

Generally pramoxine HCl doesn’t have a lot of side effects or warnings, but it is related to or often used in conjunction with corticosteroids, which are definitely a risk for pregnant women. Both have unknown impacts on breastmilk for nursing moms. Pramoxine is not recommended for children under 2 years old (which could mean it’s less than safe or simply that it hasn’t been tested – the FDA is more cautious with that age group, FYI).

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

How about Caladryl?

The most commonly known calamine lotion is Caladryl, and in fact, like Kleenex and Scotch tape, it’s nearly taken over the linguistic market. Here are the active ingredients:

Caladryl lotion contains Calamine 8% (skin protectant) and Pramoxine HCl 1% (Topical Analgesic) while Caladryl Clear contains Zinc Acetate 0.1% and Pramoxine HCI 1% (Topical Analgesic). (from the Calydryl website)

The site also says it’s only approved for children ages 2 and up and to apply no more than 3-4 times daily.

In Caladryl in particular, it’s the other ingredients that give me real pause:

SD alcohol 38-B, camphor, diazolidinyl urea, fragrance, hypromellose, methylparaben, polysorbate 80, propylene glycol, propylparaben, purified water, xanthan gum

Diazolidinyl urea was on a list of top 10 ingredients to avoid in personal products that I memorized five years ago when I first started my green journey, so it always stands out to me as a warning sign, and two different kinds of parabens, a known endocrine disruptor? Now I’m finished with Caladryl. No need to go further.

Other brands of the pink stuff may have cleaner "other" ingredients, so you’ll have to read labels to find out.

For example, one on-the-way-to-being-natural brand is Aveeno, and they have an Anti-Itch Concentrated Lotion on Amazon. Here are the ingredients:

Active Ingredients: Calamine 3%, Pramoxine HCL 1%
Inactive Ingredients: Water, Glycerin, Disearyldimonium Chloride, Petrolatum, Isopropyl Palmitate, Cetyl Alcohol, Dimethicone, Camphor, Avena sativa (oat) kernel flour, Sodium Chloride.

You can quickly see that the active ingredients are similar compared to the pink Caladryl, although a lesser percentage of calamine itself. The inactive ingredients, although neither entirely natural or ideal, are missing some of the key problems I identified in the Caladryl brand. Petroleum jelly (petrolatum) is of course oil-based, a non-renewable resource and can be clogging to the skin, but it’s not the worst thing in the world.

The interesting part about calamine is that there have never been any studies to show that it does much of anything, so the companies can’t make many claims on the bottle because of it. But like many old-school remedies, grandmothers everywhere will tell you what’s up. Winking smile 

In general, the only people who suffer any obvious reaction from calamine lotion are those who are allergic to an ingredient. It doesn’t have any real side effects to speak of.

Bottom line: Would I bother? Only if I needed something found at a local pharmacy and I’d already exhausted all the other natural remedies above on my itchy bug bites – and then I’d go with Aveeno or something similar, not Caladryl.

Sources: 1, 2

Styptic Pencil

One last common mosquito bite relief recommendation is a styptic pencil (found on Amazon), usually used to stop bleeding while shaving or whenever. Folks say to moisten it and rub on the bite, that it works great and is inexpensive. But is it safe? Here’s the scoop:

  • The active ingredient in a styptic pencil is either aluminum sulfate or alum, depending on your source, and maybe they’re the same thing in the long run (?).
  • The aluminum, something I try to avoid in all personal products and cooking, is the key ingredient to stop the bleeding by constricting blood flow.  
  • Other ingredients might include alcohol and titanium dioxide, neither of which would set off my "unsafe" sensors, but I’m not crazy about the aluminum if there are other options that are equally as effective.

So what’s your magic solution? If we can make this post even more comprehensive by adding new suggestions, I’d love it! If you’ve tried any of these and found them to be entirely ineffective, we’d love to hear that, too…thanks!!

Other Natural Insect Issues and Solutions

Mosquitoes aren’t the only annoying little buggers out there to content with. We’ve got some more solutions for you here at KS:

And be sure to Follow me on Pinterest for more natural health and real food goodies!

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • AH

    How about AfterBite – the stuff works but how bad is it to be putting ammonia on your skin?

    [Reply to this comment]

    Helen @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Depending on your specific product, the EWG lists several as being very safe.
    http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/brand/After_Bite/products/

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Kristie

    We have used plain black tea bags (wet on the bite), and diatomaceous earth (made into a paste).

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Beth @ Turn2theSimple

    We live in Central MN…super bad mosquitoes this year! What has been working well for us is the hydrated bentonite clay…the faster you get it on the bite, the better…it reduces the redness and swelling and stops the itching. You can also use it later too for itch relief. It is now a part of our nightly post-bath routine…clay on all bites before bed!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Karin C.

    I had heard a lot of those remedies. Here in ND, we call mosquitoes the state bird! We use ACV on a q-tip to dab on bites or lemon juice. But in a pinch we grew up putting saliva on our finger and rubbing it on the bite and doing the cross with our fingernail on top of the bite and usually that was it for quite a while! Thought I’d add one more to your list that wasn’t on there! :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Kathryn Arnold

    This WILL stop the itch…even chigger bites… and help heal.. I got over a hundred chigger bites last year and nearly went crazy before I discovered this..

    In a clean bottle (i use an empty witch hazel bottle):
    - one part witch hazel
    - one part mint mouthwash (the real kind with menthol and other natural ingredients, NOT the one with the chemical ingredients..you can make your own if you want)
    - one part water
    - any and all of the essential oils for soothing (lavender), antiseptic (tea tree), and healing that you have on hand in whatever quantity makes sense to you.

    Shake well, rub in well with cotton balls. Relief is in seconds. Carry a small bottle with you and apply as often as needed.

    For sleep and just a few fire ant bites, put a bit of fluff from a cotton ball in a bandaid (get enough stuck in the adhesive so it can’t fall out) put it over the bite, soak cotton (use an eye dropper if you have one) with the above solution or just plain ACV.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Heather @ My Overflowing Cup

    Thank you for this informative post! We have used ice packs, tea tree oil, vinegar, and baking soda with pretty good results. I still want to try Redmond’s Clay for its many benefits. I sure love their salt! Thanks, again, for the info.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • casey

    When we first moved to Houston in 2003, my mother thought she was developing hives. It turned out to be mosquito bites. The local pharmacist sold her about a thing that uses quartz crystals to deliver a tiny shock which numbs the area. We got some and they were great and really helped with the itgching. All adults so I’m not sure if it works on kids.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Elaine

    We previously used Windex, since the ammonia solution killed the sting…Gasp!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Heidi

    I’d been avoiding Calamine lotions due to the lists of ingredients – until I ran into Our Family Calamine Lotion (8% Calamine, 8% Zinc oxide, bentonite magma, calcium hydroxide, glycerin, purified water). This may only be available in the MN/WI area, though…

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Kelly via Facebook

    Thank you!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Kristen Stevens

    Do you have any suggestions on how to prevent these bites? We have been doing some camping and it’s nearly impossible with the mosquitoes. I have tried about everything, I even made a spray with my essential oils and nothing works. I feel like one big, swollen, itchy, bite…ugh!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Karin C. Reply:

    When we consistently take our raw garlic (chopped up and swallowed like a vitamin), we repel mosquitoes well. It’s being consistent is the key. You won’t reek like garlic either contrary to what people think-if you chew it, you may, like onions, it may stay on your tongue. But whatever I emit to keep mosquitoes, I could never have a friend tell me that I smell like garlic although I asked them to try when trying to convince them that it works and you don’t smell. I would be proud to smell like garlic as I love love love it! And it’s anti- viral and anti-bacterial-so lots of added bonus to taking raw garlic!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Kristen Stevens

    Wonderful, thank you! I’m going to give it a try :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Samantha

    Hey there! My famiy uses a liquid substance called “itch nix” (sp?). I am allergic to bug bites and also to cortizone, so thats out of the question. The itch nix is runny and yellow and messy, but it works wonders. Can get it at rei or online. Highly reccomend, but check the ingredients for your own personal preferences. Thanks for this post!

    [Reply to this comment]

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Welcome!  Meet Katie.

I embrace butter. I make homemade yogurt. I eat traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. Here at Kitchen Stewardship, I share how I strive to be a good steward of my family's nutrition, the environment, and our budget, all without spending every second in the kitchen. Learn more about the mission of KS here.

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