Chemical Structure of Pyrethrin, Pyrethrin I R = CH3, Pyrethrin II R = CO2CH3

The pyrethrins are a class of piperonyl butoxide or other synthetic adjuvants.[1] Their insecticidal and insect repellent properties have been known and utilized for thousands of years.

Pyrethrins are gradually replacing biodegradable compounds, pyrethrins are now widely regarded as being preferable to pyrethroids, which is the name of a group of synthetic analogues of pyrethrin that accumulate in the environment. Pyrethrins are considered to be low toxicity pesticides from a human health standpoint.


  • Physical and Chemical Properties 1
  • History 2
  • Biosynthesis 3
  • Production 4
  • Use as an insecticide 5
  • Toxicity 6
    • Chronic Pyrethrin Toxicity in Humans 6.1
    • Pyrethrum Toxicity 6.2
  • Environmental Effects 7
    • Aquatic habitats 7.1
    • Bees 7.2
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Physical and Chemical Properties

Table 1. Physical and Chemical Properties of Pyrethrin.[2][3][4][5][6][7]
Group Pyrethrin I Pyrethrin II
Chemical Compound Pyrethrin I Cinerin I Jasmolin I Pyrethrin II Cinerin II Jasmolin II
Chemical Structure Pyrethrin I Cinerin I Jasmolin I Pyrethrin II Cinerin II Jasmolin II
Chemical Formula C21H28O3 C20H28O3 C21H30O3 C22H28O5 C21H28O5 C22H30O5
Molecular Mass (g/mol) 328.4 316.4 330.4 372.4 360.4 374.4
Boiling Point (°C) 170 136-138 - 200 182-184 -
Vapor Pressure (mm Hg) 2.02 x 10−5 1.1 x 10−6 4.8 x 10−7 3.9 x10−7 4.6 x 10−7 1.9 x 10−7
Aqueous Solubility (mg/L) 0.35 3.62 0.60 125.6 1038 214.8


The pyrethrins occur in the seed cases of the perennial plant pyrethrum (Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium), which has long been grown commercially to supply the insecticide. Pyrethrins have been used as an insecticide for thousands of years. It is believed that the Chinese crushed Chrysanthemum plants and used the powder as an insecticide as early as 1000 BC. It was widely known that the Chou Dynasty in China widely used pyrethrin for its insecticide properties.[8] Pyrethrins were identified as the potent chemical in the Chrysanthemum plants responsible for the insecticidal properties in the crushed flowers around 1800 in Asia. In the Napoleonic Wars, French soldiers used the flower to keep away fleas and body lice.[8]


Cyclopropanation reaction producing Chrysanthemic acid

Well after their use as insecticides began, their chemical structures were determined by Hermann Staudinger and Lavoslav Ružička in 1924.[9] Pyrethrin I (CnH28O3) and pyrethrin II (CnH28O5) are structurally related esters with a cyclopropane core. Pyrethrin I is a derivative of (+)-trans-chrysanthemic acid.[10][11] Pyrethrin II is closely related, but one methyl group is oxidized to a carboxymethyl group, the resulting core being called pyrethric acid. Knowledge of their structures opened the way for the production of synthetic analogues, which are called pyrethroids. Pyrethrins are classified as terpenoids. The key step in the biosynthesis of the naturally-occurring pyrethrins involves two molecules of dimethylallyl pyrophosphate, which join to form a cyclopropane rings by the action of the enzyme chrysanthemyl diphosphate synthase.[12]


Tanacetum cinerariifolium

Commercial Pyrethrin production mainly takes place in mountainous equatorial zones. The commercial cultivation of the Dalmatian Chrysanthemum takes place at an altitude of 3000 to 6000 meters above sea level.[13] This is done because pyrethrin concentration has been shown to increase as elevation increases to this level. Growing these plants doesn't require much water because semi-arid conditions and a cool winter deliver optimal pyrethrin production. Another variety of Chrysanthemum used for the production of pyrethrins are the Pyrethrum Chrysanthemum. These flowers prefer to be grown in dry soils at a lower altitude than the Dalmatian Chrysanthemum to optimize Pyrethrin production.[14]

Most of the world's supply of pyrethrin and C. cinerariaefolium comes from pyrethrin I, pyrethrin II, cinerin I, cinerin II, jasmolin I, and jasmolin II.[16]

Processing the flowers to cultivate the pyrethrin is often a lengthy process, and one that varies from area to area. For instance, in Japan the flowers are hung upside down to dry which increases pyrethrin concentration slightly.[14] To process pyrethrin, the flowers must be crushed. The degree to which the flower is crushed has an effect on both the longevity of the pyrethrin usage as well as the quality. The finer powder produced will be better suited for use as an insecticide than the more coarsely crushed flowers. However, the more coarsely crushed flowers will have a lengthier shelf life and will deteriorate less.[14]

Use as an insecticide

Pyrethrin is most commonly used as an insecticide and has been used for this purpose since the 1900s.[16] In the 1800s, it was known as "Persian powder", "Persian pellitory", and "zacherlin". Pyrethrins delay the closure of voltage-gated sodium ion channels in the nerve cells of insects, resulting in repeated and extended nerve firings. This hyperexcitation causes the death of the insect due to loss of motor coordination and paralysis.[17] Resistance to pyrethrin has been bypassed by pairing the insecticide with synthetic synergists such as piperonyl butoxide. Together, these two compounds prevent detoxification in the insect, ensuring insect death.[18] Synergists make pyrethrin more effective, allowing lower doses to be effective. Pyrethrins are effective insecticides because they selectively target insects rather than mammals due to higher insect nerve sensitivity, smaller insect body size, lower mammalian skin absorption, and more efficient mammalian hepatic metabolism.[19]

Although pyrethrin is a potent insecticide, it also functions as an insect repellent at lower concentrations. Observations in food establishments demonstrate that flies are not immediately killed, but are found more often on windowsills or near doorways. This suggests, due to the low dosage applied, that insects are driven to leave the area before dying.[20] Because of their insecticide and insect repellent effect, pyrethrins have been very successful in reducing insect pest populations that affect humans, crops, livestock, and pets, such as ants, spiders, lice, as well as potentially disease-carrying mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks.

As pyrethrins and pyrethroids are increasingly being used as insecticides, the numbers of illnesses and injuries associated with exposure to these chemicals are also increasing.[21] However, there have been few cases leading to serious health effects or mortality in humans, which is why pyrethrins and pyrethroids are labeled “low toxicity” chemicals and are ubiquitous in home care products.[19] Pyrethrins are widely regarded as better for the environment as well because they are relatively biodegradable, breaking down into harmless compounds upon exposure to light or oxygen. Additionally, pyrethrins have little lasting effect on plants, degrading naturally or being degraded by the cooking process.[22]

Specific pest species that have successfully controlled by pyrethrum include: potato, beet, grape, and six-spotted leafhopper, cabbage looper, celery leaf tier, Say’s stink bug, twelve-spotted cucumber beetle, lygus bugs on peaches, grape and flower thrips, and cranberry fruitworm.[23]


Though pyrethrins are typically viewed as being among the safest insecticides in the market due to their rapid degradation in the environment, synthetic pyrethroids are comparatively toxic, especially to fish and cats.[24] The combination of pyrethrin and pyrethroids in products such as insecticides and shampoos increases the likelihood of toxicity in mammals that are exposed. There is a known medical case of an eleven-year-old girl that used shampoo containing 0.2% pyrethrin to wash her dog. Pre-existing asthma was severely aggravated by the compound in the shampoo, causing the girl to suffer from an acute asthma attack, from which she died two-and-a-half hours after first exposure to the shampoo.[25]

Chronic Pyrethrin Toxicity in Humans

Chronic toxicity in humans occurs most quickly through respiration into the lungs, or more slowly through absorption through the skin.[26] Allergic reactions may occur after exposure, leading to itching and irritated skin as well as burning sensations.[27] These types of reactions are rare because the allergenic component of pyrethrin has been removed.[28] The metabolite compounds of pyrethrin are less toxic to mammals than their originators, and compounds are either broken down in the liver or gastrointestinal tract, or excreted through feces; there has been no evidence of storage in tissues.

Pyrethrum Toxicity

Exposure to pyrethrum, the crude form of pyrethrin,[28] can also cause harmful health effects for mammals. Pyrethrum has an allergenic effect that neither pyrethrin nor pyrethroids have.[28] In mammals, toxic exposure to pyrethrum can lead to tongue and lip numbness, drooling, lethargy, muscle tremors, respiratory failure, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, paralysis, and death.[26] Unlike dogs, cats lack a liver enzyme that allows for glucuronidation that allows for metabolism of pyrethrin compounds. Exposure to even low doses may lead to toxicity in some cats.[29] Exposure to pyrethrum in high levels in humans may cause symptoms such as asthmatic breathing, sneezing, nasal stuffiness, headache, nausea, loss of coordination, tremors, convulsions, facial flushing and swelling.[30] There is a possibility of damage to the immune system that leads to a worsening of allergies following toxicity.[26] Infants are unable to resourcefully break down pyrethrum due to the ease of skin penetrance, causing similar symptoms as adults, but with an increased risk of death.[31]

Environmental Effects

Aquatic habitats

In aquatic settings, toxicity to pyrethrin fluctuates, increasing with rising temperatures, water, and acidity. Run-off after application has become a concern for sediment-dwelling aquatic organisms because pyrethroids can accumulate in these areas.[32] Aquatic life is extremely susceptible to pyrethrin toxicity, and has been documented in species such as the Lake Trout. Although pyrethrins are quickly metabolized by birds and most mammals, fish and other aquatic invertebrates lack the ability to metabolize these compounds, leading to a toxic accumulation of byproducts.[26] In order to combat the accumulation of pyrethroids in bodies of water, the Environmental Protection Agency has introduced two labeling initiatives. The Environmental Hazard and General Labeling for Pyrethroid and Synergized Pyrethrins Non-Agricultural Outdoor Products was revised in 2013 in order to reduce runoff into bodies of water after use in residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial areas.[33] The Pyrethroid Spray Drift Initiative updated language for labeling all pyrethroid products to be used on agricultural crops.[33] Because of its high toxicity to fish and other aquatic invertebrates even at low doses, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends alternatives such as pesticide-free methods or alternative chemicals that are less harmful to the surrounding aquatic environment.[34]


Pyrethrins are applied broadly as non-specific insecticides. Bees have been shown to be particularly sensitive to pyrethrin, with fatal doses as small as 0.02 micrograms.[35] Due to this sensitivity and pollinator decline, it is recommended that pyrethrins be applied at night in order to avoid typical pollinating hours, and in liquid rather than dust form.[36]


  1. ^ Mader, Eric, and Nancy Lee Adamson. "Organic-Approved Pesticides."Organic-Approved Pesticides (n.d.): n. pag. The Xerxes Society. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
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  9. ^ Staudinger, H.; Ruzicka, L. (1924). "Insektentötende Stoffe I. Über Isolierung und Konstitution des wirksamen Teiles des dalmatinischen Insektenpulvers" [Insecticidal substances I. About the isolation and structure of the active part of the Dalmatian insect powder]. Helvetica Chimica Acta (in German) 7 (1): 177–201.  
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  13. ^ Anonym. 1987 (March). Pepping up pesticides naturally. Organic Gardening, 34(3):8.
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  15. ^ Wainaina, Job M. G. (1995). "Pyrethrum Flowers -- Production in Africa". In Casida, John E.; Quistad, Gary B. Pyrethrum Flowers. Oxford University Press.  
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  17. ^ "Pyrethrins General Fact Sheet." National Pesticide Information Center (n.d.): n. pag. Nov. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.
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  36. ^ Hooven, L., R. Sagili, and E. Johansen. "How to Reduce Bee Poisoning from Pesticides." (n.d.): n. pag. Oregon State University, Dec. 2006. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.

External links

  • International Center for Pyrethrum research
  • Pyrethrins and Pyrethroids Fact Sheet - National Pesticide Information Center
  • Pyrethrins and pyrethroids on the EXTOXNET
  • Pyrethrin and Permethrin Toxicity in Dogs and Cats
  • Wagner, S. L. (2000). "Fatal asthma in a child after use of an animal shampoo containing pyrethrin". The Western journal of medicine 173 (2): 86–7.  
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Awareness, J. Edward Hill, MD, President & Executive Committee Member, AMA
  • Horton, M. K.; Rundle, A.; Camann, D. E.; Boyd Barr, D.; Rauh, V. A.; Whyatt, R. M. (2011). "Impact of Prenatal Exposure to Piperonyl Butoxide and Permethrin on 36-Month Neurodevelopment". Pediatrics 127 (3): e699–706.