With the joy of gardening comes the challenge of fending off biting bugs, harmful sunrays and irritating plant oils, as well as healing the damage to our skin. To be well and at ease outdoors, we humans just have to be smarter than the natural forces that surround us. With a little planning and discipline — plus the tips and recipes we offer here — you can make it through this summer with minimal impact to the skin you’re in.
Defend Your Skin
Our first line of defense is internal. Drinking lots of water will keep you hydrated in hot weather. During the gardening season, eat garlic and increase your intake of vitamin C for energy and a healthy immune system. If you notice the beginning of a poison ivy rash, or get some bug bites, use echinacea tincture for several days to boost your immune system.
Your level of protection may depend on the type of gardening you do, and the length of time you spend in the garden. Tina Marie, a full-time gardener in Arkansas, takes the more cautious approach: she applies Antiseptic Insect Repellent Oil to her entire body before dressing; wears white, long-sleeved blouses; wears trousers, gloves and boots; tucks pant legs into the tops of her boots and secures them with elastic straps that fasten with Velcro (available in sporting-goods stores); waterproofs boots with Insect Repellent Neat’s-foot Oil; dusts feet and inside of boots with Gardener’s Foot Powder; and drapes white cotton tea towels sprayed with insect repellent across the back of her neck to absorb perspiration and reflect the sun’s rays.
Susan, on the other hand, is more comfortable wearing minimal clothing and going barefoot in the garden. If you are more inclined to this relaxed approach, make sure to take plenty of showers, use protective lotions and salves, and wear a hat. When possible, work in the morning or evening rather than the heat of the day, and use Jewelweed Vinegar with Insect- Repellent Herbs to keep biting flies and mosquitoes away.
Stop Chiggers, Mosquitoes and Ticks
It is hard to imagine anything itchier than a chigger bite. Also known as red bugs, these soft-bodied mites pester gardeners in the temperate, humid areas of the United States. As we work in the garden, chiggers climb onto our bodies, find a nice tender place and take a nip. Rather than burrowing in and taking up residence under the skin, as some believe, chigger larvae feed by injecting an enzyme into the skin. The enzyme simultaneously breaks down the skin cells and creates intense itching at the site of the bite. To kill them before they bite you, frequently brush up and down to rub the soft-bodied mites off your skin and clothing when you’re working in the garden.
Mosquitoes and ticks can carry seriously debilitating diseases, such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease. Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk; ticks tend to be most active in the heat of the day in locations where animals, such as deer, cattle and even lizards, roam. Adjust the timing and location of your gardening activities to limit exposure. When you come in from the outdoors, use a doubled-over piece of wide masking tape and run it up and down your legs and arms to trap any ticks that might be on you. Be familiar with the symptoms associated with tick- and mosquito-borne diseases: Rashes (sometimes, but not always, a “bull’s-eye” rash with a clear center); swelling; fever; chills; sweats; joint pain; fatigue; or sore throat. When you get bites, treat them aggressively and seek prompt medical attention if any of these disease symptoms occur.
Poison Ivy and Poison Oak
First of all, learn the rule, “leaves of three, let it be” to identify poison ivy and poison oak. Wear gloves in the garden as much as possible and wear boots and long pants when going into the woods. If you discover you have been walking or working in a poison ivy or poison oak patch, it is essential to remove the plant’s oily, poisonous (urushiol) from the skin as soon as possible. Wash with a strongly detergent bar soap as soon as you get back to the house. Wash all the way up your arms and down again with cold water. If you have been wearing flip-flops or are barefoot, then scrub up to your knees and back down. Pat dry, don’t rub. Wash tools, gloves, shoes and all clothing, and then wash your hands again.
Next, immediately use one of the following to get rid of any remaining urushiol on the skin: alcohol, jewelweed vinegar or witch hazel. We’ve tried using all of them and this extra step really does seem to help prevent getting poison ivy.
Healing the Rash
If you develop poison ivy rash, take these steps to heal quickly: Dry the blisters, soothe the inflammation and kill microbes that cause secondary infections. Drying agents include alcohol, witch hazel, vinegar, oatmeal and green clay. The very best remedy for drying poison ivy is going to the beach and swimming in the salty ocean; it really does wonders.
For those of us without an ocean handy, take a tepid shower or soak in a bath with oatmeal or baking soda. (Put a handful of oatmeal in a cheesecloth bag or the cut-off toe of a pair of stockings, then swish in the water.) After patting dry, apply jewelweed vinegar or antimicrobial washes, such as alcohol or witch hazel, as well as antiseptic and anti-inflammatory herbal infusions.
If all preventive measures fail and you end up in poison ivy’s itchy throes, try adding herbal infusions to oatmeal or green clay to make a paste to slather on the rash. Make infusions of mucilage-containing, anti-inflammatory astringent herbs — such as calendula, jewelweed, comfrey, flax seed, aloe, oatmeal, mullein, yarrow or plantain – by soaking them for about an hour in water or vinegar. Also, you may add additional antiseptic herbs or oils (click here for Antiseptic Essential Oils and Herbs) to your infusions to boost their germ-killing properties. Add your herbal infusion to oatmeal or green clay and slather on your rash repeatedly. Once paste has dried, you can rinse off and rub gently to remove residue.
When your rash dries up, use salves and creams to help tissues heal. Try herbal salves of chickweed or calendula, or vitamin E oil. Oil-based remedies trap moisture in the skin and should not be applied until blisters are completely dry. Do not use on open sores or scabs.
Soothe Your Sunburn
In the summer, when you wear less clothing, always try to use sunblock. Even so, sometimes a day in the sun equals sunburn. To cool sunburn, cut a leaf from your aloe plant, slit it open and apply the gel directly to the skin, or scrape the gel from the leaf and mix it with a little water and vitamin E oil for easier application. Or purchase a bottle of aloe vera gel at the health food store; keep both leaf and gel in the refrigerator, wrapping the leaf so it doesn’t dry out.
Tina Marie Wilcox and Susan Belsinger are veteran gardeners and friends who have been collaborating for several years. Tina Marie, who lives in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains, is very disciplined and doesn’t scratch her bug bites. Susan lives in Maryland and scratches when it itches.
Pregnant and nursing women should use essential oils with caution, under the supervision of their health-care professional. The information included in this article is not meant to take the place of professional medical advice.
Antiseptic Insect Repellent Skin Oil
Oregano, thyme and tea tree oils are very strong and pungent oils, so we suggest a skin test first; if it burns when you apply it, dilute it further or don’t use it. 1/2 cup almond, walnut or grapeseed oil6 drops oregano, thyme or tea tree oil4 drops each of up to four insect repellent oils (click here for a list of oils)
Add oil to a small clean bottle, preferably dark glass. Drop in the essential oils of your choice and shake well. Label and keep in a dark, cool place.
Insect Repellent Neat's-foot Oil
This is Tina’s recipe for applying to leather work boots, which conditions the boots and helps repel insects. 1/2 teaspoon each orange, eucalyptus and citronella essential oils7.5-ounce bottle neat’s-foot oil (available in sporting goods stores)
Add the essential oils to the neat’s-foot oil bottle and shake well. Apply to boots as directed on bottle.
Keep your feet sweet while you work. 1/4 cup cornstarch1/4 cup baking soda10 drops each lavender and tea tree oils
Put cornstarch and baking soda in a jar; add essential oils and stir.
Herbal Insect Repellent Vinegar
We pour our vinegars into spray bottles for easy application.
2 cups fresh insect-repellent herbs (click here for Insect-Repellent Herbs)2 cups apple cider vinegar
Crush herbs with a mortar and pestle. Place herbs in a glass quart jar and cover with vinegar. Use a plastic lid to seal the jar (vinegar corrodes metal). Shake every day for 3 to 7 days. Filter vinegar within a week and use within the year.
Jewelweed Vinegar1 cup fresh crushed jewelweed2 cups apple cider vinegar
Place jewelweed in glass quart jar. Cover with vinegar and seal with a plastic lid. You can leave the herb in for up to four weeks. Pour vinegar through a cheesecloth-lined strainer. We add insect-repellent and antiseptic essential oils to the vinegar, 10 drops to a one-pint sprayer. You can mix with “Herbal Insect Repellent Vinegar.” Vinegars are good for about a year.
Antiseptic Essential Oils and HerbsCalendulaEucalyptusGarlicGoldensealLavenderLemongrassOreganoPatchouliRose geraniumRosemaryTea treeThymeVetiverYarrowComfreyPlantainYarrow
Insect-Repellect Oils and Herbs
Dilute these oils in a carrier, such as vinegar, witch hazel or a skin-nourishing oil (olive, almond, grapeseed, sesame or walnut) to deter mosquitoes, chiggers, gnats, ticks and biting flies. East Indian lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus)
Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia and L. x intermedia)
Lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus)
Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum albescens)
Orange peel (Citrus sinensis)
Citronella (Cymbopogon nardus)
Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)
Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides)
Sandalwood (Santalum album)