A cockroach zipping across the kitchen floor, a silverfish in the shower—these are among the most heart-stopping things you can see in your home. But bugs aren’t just gross: They can also be dangerous. Bites from certain critters can transmit serious diseases, such as encephalitis (brain inflammation), West Nile, and Lyme disease, to name just a few.
The problem: Chemical bug repellants aren’t only bad for bugs, they’re bad for you, too. Scientists have linked DEET, the most common active ingredient in bug spray, to asthma attacks, seizures, and even nerve damage. Household and lawn bug killers often contain insecticidal chemicals called organophosphates, which are toxic to the nervous system and have been linked to developmental problems in children.
Sure, we’re never going to get completely rid of pests, but our expert tips will help keep them out of your house—and off of your skin—safely.
For more easy ways to help your family live a green lifestyle, check out The Honest Life by celeb (and mom!) Jessica Alba.
Mosquitoes: Clean your gutters
Mosquitoes can breed in even tiny amounts of water. To prevent your yard from becoming Club Med for these itch-inducing pests, drill holes in the bottom of recycling and trash containers and clear roof gutters regularly to prevent standing water. Change out the water in birdbaths at least once weekly to clear out mosquito eggs. (Click here for Dr. Andrew Weil’s all-natural mosquito repellant solution.)
Ticks: Go after invasives
Every animal has a prime habitat: Polar bears: glaciers; cats: laps. A tick’s preferred home is the Japanese barberry plant, an invasive species found in about 20 states, because it grows into dense stands that create ideal humidity conditions for the Lyme disease–carrying arachnids. Click here to see what Japanese barberry looks like, and here to learn how to get rid of it. A University of Connecticut study found that clearing out the plants can lower the number of ticks carrying Lyme disease by about 90%.
Ticks: Honor your 2-hour window
People who showered within 2 hours of being in the yard had a significantly lower risk of developing Lyme disease, Yale researchers found. A quick shower can knock a tick off of your skin before it latches on, and taking off your clothing ensures that hitchhiking bugs don’t make their way to your body. You don’t have to shower every time you step in the backyard for a breath of fresh air, but wash off if you’ve spent time around tick hotspots like high grass, brush, and woodpiles.
Wasps: Hang rosemary bouquets
Hanging bouquets of fresh-cut herbs like rosemary or mint near potential nesting sites—under railings, awnings, play equipment, eaves, and sheltered nooks and crannies—could deter nest building. If you see wasps buzzing about, it’s time for a fresh bouquet.
While it’s understandable you don’t want wasps on your patio or near play areas, it’s a good idea to leave them be if they’re not in a highly trafficked place: Most wasps prey on outdoor pests that cause havoc in gardens, and they also help pollinate flowers.
Ticks: Explore your armpits
Performing tick checks within 36 hours of spending time in the yard significantly cuts down on Lyme disease risk, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Ticks can attach anywhere on your body, but they prefer spots on the back of your knee, around waistbands, under armpits, and any other constricted place. Look for a brown bug about the size of a pinhead. Here’s how to correctly remove a tick.
Mosquitoes: Use the right spray
Mosquitoes are growing resistant to DEET, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Luckily, more natural, less toxic compounds have been shown to repel mosquitoes. Try picaridin, a compound derived from pepper (Natrapel, $6.95) or soybean-based natural repellents such as BiteBlocker ($7.97). Oil of lemon eucalyptus, which could be listed as para-Menthane-3,8-diol, also works. (Try Repel Lemon Eucalyptus, $6.99). Reach for a formula with at least 26% oil of lemon eucalyptus; pure oil isn’t as effective, tests show.
Houseflies: Clean your trash can
Keep garbage cans tightly covered during the week, wash them once a week, and sprinkle borax on the inside to make this fly hangout inhabitable. You can find borax in the laundry aisle for less than $10 a box.
Fruit Flies: Drink them to death
To deal with a fruit fly infestation without using chemicals, put an inch of wine, fruit juice, or a sugar and vinegar mixture in the bottom of a bottle with a narrow neck. It will attract and drown the critters.
Silverfish: Fix your leaks
Silverfish thrive in moist, humid environments, so if you see them in your home, you’ve likely got a moisture problem. Fix water leaks, increase ventilation, and seal openings around pipes and gaps in the walls. Finally, vacuum the infested area—including the floor and furniture—to make sure there are no eggs left behind.
Ants: Sprinkle cinnamon
Sprinkle ant entry areas with crushed dry mint, ground cinnamon, or cloves to keep them out. Then hide their highway: Frequently cleaning the floors, counters, or any other surfaces where you’ve spotted ants with a solution of half white vinegar and half water helps remove the trails that they lay down to lead their fellows to food.
Cockroaches: MacGyver your own trap
Make a homemade roach trap by placing a piece of banana inside a Mason jar and lining the inside rim with petroleum jelly. Place the jars under sinks and near where pipes enter the home. Roaches will crawl in to feast but won’t be able to escape from the slippery lip. Once you’ve pinpointed where they congregate, use a hand applicator to inject boric acid—a low-toxicity mineral available at home centers—into nearby cracks and crevices.
Roaches, Termites, Silverfish: Know when not to fight
Don’t squish everything in your house. Most spiders and centipedes like to feast on household pests like roaches, termites, houseflies, clothes moths, and silverfish. According to the University of Maine, of all insect species, more than 97% of those usually seen in the home landscape are either beneficial or are innocent bystanders.