With ’Skeeter Skidaddler, Allen Pollock has reimagined insect repellent as an attractive natural fragrance.
By Rob Sneddon
Photographed by Alex Gagne
[L]istening to Allen Pollock, you might think he was one of Maine’s many microbrewers. He peppers his conversation with terms like “caramelized” and “smoky,” and his product comes in varieties like Warm & Spicy and Light & Lemony. “I like an earthy undertone,” he says, explaining why he chose a particular ingredient.
But Pollock’s home brew isn’t beer. It’s an organic insect repellent called ’Skeeter Skidaddler that he produces at his home lab in Windham. With a sunflower oil base and active ingredients that include cinnamon and geranium oils, ’Skeeter Skidaddler is, as the label says, “100% natural.”
Pollock originally intended the stuff only for his own use. “A mosquito or a blackfly injects some kind of enzyme into the skin, and my body just absolutely overreacted to that,” he says. “In fact, I’ve got some scarring. I’d get bit, and I would swell up mightily. I’d end up looking like Popeye.”
Insect bites posed little threat at his day job in the IT department at Maine Medical Center. But in 2007, when Pollock decided to start selling his homegrown organic produce at an outdoor farmers market, he realized, “You have a problem, mister.”
Pollock went looking for an alternative to dousing himself with DEET or reeking of bug dope. “I wanted something that would be more like a cologne application,” he says. After researching commercial insect repellents, he concluded he’d have to make it himself.
So he started experimenting with combinations of essential oils extracted from plants: lemongrass, patchouli, cedarwood, eucalyptus. A self-described “amateur herbalist,” he’d long explored the medicinal benefits of various natural remedies, and he settled before long on a formula he felt good about. All the same, he was nervous on the first buggy day that he headed out wearing only his own concoction for protection. “I flinched whenever a blackfly came close,” he says, “but I noticed that they would come to within 8 inches and hover, and then they would go away. So I thought, ‘OK — you can relax. This is working for you.’ ”
The blackflies and mosquitoes didn’t bite — but the entrepreneurial bug did. Pollock started packaging his repellent and bringing it with his vegetables and herbs to the market. “People started buying it,” he says, “then coming back and buying more. I said, ‘Man, you can’t just keep selling radishes. You’ve gotta follow this and see where it takes you.’”
Pollock grew up in California and moved to Maine in 1979, and his burgeoning ’Skeeter Skidaddler enterprise embraces the homespun vibe and frugality of his adopted home state. There’s his lab, for instance, which feels like the lair of a rustic mad scientist with its wood-fired boiler and DIY assemblage of gadgets and tubing. “I make my own production equipment, by and large,” Pollock says. And what he doesn’t make, he cobbles together — on a tour, Pollock proudly points out the label machine he picked up on eBay and ceiling panels he scored from a repurposing company in Skowhegan.
In recent years, Pollock’s had to tweak his original formula, thanks to concerns from the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture (Pollock has retailers in the Granite State, along with some 20 other states). Regulators there worried that marketing patchouli and eucalyptus as insect repellent might prompt a user to spray them on a mass-scale — say, over a field near water — and while neither extract poses threats to humans, they’re considered toxic to aquatic life.
“Somebody’s got to regulate these things,” Pollock shrugs. So he tinkered further and replaced the eucalyptus oil with clove oil — a taxonomically close and similarly sweet-scented cousin.
Today, ’Skeeter Skidaddler comes in two varieties, and both “Warm & Spicy” and “Light & Lemony” smell less like a pungent old fishing guide and more like a helpful clerk at Mexicali Blues. The oil is highly concentrated in 2.7-ounce bottles, so you rub it on like sunscreen, rather than spraying it like commercial bug dope (of late, Pollock has also added prepackaged wipes). Customer testimonials have poured in from famously buggy locales like Alaska (“I’m desperate for more!”), Vietnam, and Africa (though Pollock is quick to caution that he makes no claims about his product’s effectiveness against Maine’s dreaded ticks).
Since launching ’Skeeter Skidaddler, Pollock has left the organic produce game, but he still holds down a full-time IT job for MaineHealth. So it’s been a challenge making the leap from peddling a few dozen bottles at farmers markets to mass distribution. To that end, he’s enlisted help: Pollock works with a nationwide network of distributors and Portland branding and creative-packaging agency Pulp + Wire. The firm collaborated with him on ’Skeeter Skidaddler’s labels and sleek, pocket-size silver bottles. And lest you suppose the one-time farmer, part-time herbalist, and longtime IT specialist (who picked up his electronics skills in the Army) doesn’t deserve a place at the design table, Pollock also has a degree in fine art and painting from what’s now the Maine College of Art.
“What can I say?” says the bug juice inventor. “I’m a strange mix.”