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The Healthy Skeptic

All-natural bedbug sprays have little bite

Products such as Rest Easy and Bed Bug Bully claim to be highly effective at controlling the insects, but researchers say there aren't yet any consumer products proven to keep bedbugs away.

By Chris Woolston, Special to the Los Angeles Times

October 25, 2010

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Bedbugs combine all of the bloodsucking annoyance of mosquitoes with the survival instinct of cockroaches. No bigger than apple seeds, the adult bugs hide in ingenious places — inside electrical outlets, behind baseboards, deep in carpet fibers — during the day and attack their victims during the night. You may never know that you have a bedbug problem until bites start showing up on your skin. Bedbugs don't spread any illnesses, but still. Ick.

The bugs are tough, they're devious and they're gaining new ground in homes and hotel rooms across the country, says Susan Jones, an entomologist at Ohio State University in Columbus. "They are the worst insects that we've ever had to deal with in an urban environment."

As worry about bedbugs grows, it's no surprise that many people are taking pest control into their own hands. Do-it-yourself exterminators can choose from many different sprays that claim to kill the bugs and prevent infestations.

Some products, like Rest Easy Bed Bug Spray, are sold as all-natural alternatives to traditional pesticides. Rest Easy, manufactured by the RMB Group, contains essential oils from cinnamon and lemon grass, among other ingredients. Bed Bug Bully, produced by a company called My Cleaning Products, claims to be 100% natural. The company website doesn't list any ingredients, but a sales manager reached by phone said that the spray ingredients include tea tree oil and lavender. The company didn't respond to a request for more information.

A 16-ounce spray bottle of Rest Easy — sold at many Walgreens, Ace Hardware and other stores — costs about $16. The company website instructs users to spray Rest Easy on "dressers drawers, closets, along baseboards, behind headboards, and around any other furniture you want treated." The site advises against spraying the bed directly. "If bed bugs are present in the bed," the site says, "call a professional for extermination."

A 32-ounce bottle of Bed Bug Bully, available at many drugstores, retails for about $50. A video tutorial on the company website encourages users to spray "wherever you think bedbugs may be."

If you want a little more punch in your spray, you might consider buying a product that contains an EPA-registered pesticide. Steri-Fab, a spray from Noble Pine Products, contains alcohol with a small amount of d-phenothrin, a common pesticide often found in flea and tick products. It's sold online — Amazon is one option — and at many professional cleaning supply outlets. On Amazon.com, a 1-gallon bottle sells for a little more than $40. According to the company site, a gallon is enough to cover eight to 10 pieces of upholstered furniture or six to seven mattress sets.

The claims

The Rest Easy website says that its "optimized blend of natural ingredients has been universally recognized for thousands of years as a means for controlling insects." In a phone interview, company President Howard Brenner said, "We are all-natural and highly effective." He also said that people who have a serious and obvious infestation should call an exterminator. "Our product is for people who think they might have bedbugs or are paranoid that they might get them."

The Bed Bug Bully site says the product is "by far the best bed bug treatment you can get on the market today." It also promises "the same results delivered by pest service without evacuation."

The Steri-Fab website says that, "unlike any other product available in the U.S. and the world," Steri-Fab kills bedbugs, fleas, ticks and lice along with bacteria and viruses. The site also says it "dries in 15-20 minutes and leaves no residue." The FAQ section explains that the product kills bugs on contact but becomes essentially inactive once it dries. In a phone interview, company Vice President Eric Bryan said his product "isn't a panacea" but does have a proven ability to kill bugs. "Those all-natural botanical products" are baloney, he added.

The bottom line

Gail Getty, a research entomologist at UC Berkeley, says she'd love to see a day when people could quickly solve their bedbug problems on their own. "I want to encourage new research. It would be great if there was something that was safe and effective."

Unfortunately, she says, no consumer products on the market today have been proved to completely remove bedbugs from the home. Because bedbugs are so adept at hiding, and because any bugs you can target with a spray are going to just be the tip of the infestation, it really takes a professional exterminator to get rid of the bugs, she says.

Jones, the Ohio State University entomologist, is especially leery of "all-natural" products. "If you think that using these sprays is going to get rid of your bedbugs, you are sorely mistaken." Jones points out that pesticide-free products such as Bed Bug Bully or Rest Easy aren't required by the Environmental Protection Agency to prove that they are actually effective against bugs — all that matters is that they are considered safe.

And while d-phenothrin, the pesticide in Steri-Fab, definitely has some killing power, Jones says many populations of bedbugs are developing a resistance to that chemical.

Jones adds that even professional exterminators armed with industrial-strength chemicals generally need several hours to clean out an infestation. "If somebody goes in and out in 15 minutes, you just wasted your money."

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