Summer is prime time for enjoying the outdoors. But more often than not, there's a dark cloud hanging over that backyard barbecue: bugs – and especially mosquitoes. These blood-seeking fun busters expertly follow their senses right to your skin. But if you can repel them with one quick application of bug spray, then what's the concern? It turns out that many old-fashioned bug sprays contain neurotoxic ingredients that may increase cancer risk. But, worry not – there are plenty of nontoxic essential oil blends that repel the bugs, without the bite to your health.
Why Should We Use Natural Mosquito Repellent?
Mosquito bites are not just annoying. They can also transmit diseases such as malaria, zika, and dengue fever, among others. So, it's important to guard against them. Mosquitoes are guided by their sense of smell, which is equipped with hundreds of odor-receptor proteins, and they're attracted to the carbon dioxide we exhale, our skin odors, and sweat. Although none of these can truly be avoided, there are plant-derived all-natural essential oils that repel bugs and are completely safe for humans. The best part is that natural insect repellents not only have a fresh, clean scent but, most importantly, they are safe to use at any frequency and can be used in place of traditional toxic bug sprays like DEET and picaridin. Plus, natural bug sprays usually have a variety of essential oils to repel a variety of mosquitoes at once.
Of course, if you do get bitten, there's still hope. Try natural home remedies for mosquito bites.
Essential Oil Mosquito Repellents
Lemon Eucalyptus Oil
Lemon eucalyptus oil (also referred to as PMD) is a hydrodistilled byproduct of lemon eucalyptus and shouldn't be confused with the essential oil of eucalyptus itself. In concentrations above 30 percent, lemon eucalyptus oil has been shown to provide the same amount of protection for the same amount of time as DEET- and picaridin-derived sprays. Due to its efficacy, it's one of the few natural ingredients included on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) list of effective mosquito repellents, in addition to the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority-approved list.
Lemon eucalyptus is also a natural insecticide that is nontoxic to humans. In fact, some research shows that an all-natural blend of essential oils containing lemon eucalyptus was greater than 95 percent effective, compared to DEET (which was 100 percent effective) at repelling mosquitoes, for up to three hours. That 5 percent disparity seems small, but it represents the difference between a safe and potentially toxic spray.
Lavender oil, like thyme and oregano, is naturally toxic to certain mosquitoes and ticks, while providing a natural antioxidant effect on humans. This makes it an effective oil to help naturally repel mosquitoes while being beneficial to human health.
Thyme oil contains monoterpenes, naturally derived plant extracts that are shown to be as effective as DEET at repelling mosquitoes. Some research also finds that monoterpenes may repel bugs for longer than DEET.
Greek Catnip Oil
You may only know catnip as a feline's favorite herb, but researchers at Rutgers University have crafted a catnip that not only entertains cats for longer but, more importantly, also has higher concentrations of mosquito-repelling essential oils. Catnip, a member of the mint family, has been shown to suppress the feeding receptors of mosquitoes in multiple ways, which means a more effective natural bug spray.
Other Effective Natural Bug Repellents
Geraniol is naturally derived from rose and citronella oils and has been shown to be an effective insect repellent. Citronella (which is often used in backyard tiki torches and anti-bug candles), along with a vanilla extract, is a powerful essential-oil combo for naturally repelling mosquitoes, even remaining up to 71 percent effective one hour after application. Citronella extract can even repel ticks better than DEET, according to some research.
Other natural essential oils that make an ideal bug spray include peppermint, holy basil, rosemary, and tea tree oil. Peppermint, in addition to geranium, contains menthone, an all-natural extract from essential oils that may repel mosquitoes up to 90 percent effectively for up to two hours, compared with DEET, which repelled for only 15 minutes at the same 1 percent concentration. Extracts of cumin and cinnamon are also proven effective mosquito repellents. Plus, eating foods like garlic, vinegar (for example in salad dressing), lemongrass, and chili peppers may help prevent mosquito bites.
Try this DIY homemade bug spray recipe with essential oils (EOs):
- Lemon eucalyptus oil
- Citronella oil
- Pure vanilla extract or vanillin
- Distilled water
- 1 16oz spray bottle
- Optional: Witch Hazel
- Mix eight to 10 drops each of lemon eucalyptus oil, citronella, and either pure vanilla extract or vanillin (a vanilla-extract alternative made from wood pulp) into a small spray bottle.
- Fill the rest of the bottle with distilled water.
- Add an optional splash of witch hazel to soothe itchy skin.
- Make sure you shake before each use, as the water and oil tends to naturally separate over time.
You can increase the amount of essential oil based on your preferences, but, generally, the higher the EO concentration, the more repellent it will be. Remember to always dilute EOs and never use them directly on the skin in undiluted form. Also remember that due to evaporation, natural bug sprays made with essential oils will lose efficacy fairly quickly, so reapply every hour.
The common decorative plant Lantana camara, also known as big sage, red sage, or wild sage, can be mixed with Ocimum gratissimum, (aka clove basil, wild basil, or African basil) to make a natural bug repellent. Try this recipe made from dried plants:
- Food processor or other grinder
- Wild sage
- Clove basil
- Liter of 50 percent ethanol or a liter of 50 percent methanol
- Distilled water
- 1 16oz spray bottle
- Start by air-drying the leaves at room temperature for two weeks.
- Then, grind 500 grams of wild sage and 325 grams of clove basil leaves into a powder in a food processor or other grinder to increase the surface-area exposure to the liquid.
- Add this to one liter of either 50 percent ethanol (or methanol) and water to extract the most metabolites from the plants, which will not be extractable with water alone.
- Let the mixture sit for at least three days, shaking it three times per day. The ethanol should mostly evaporate.
- Strain the leaves out with cheesecloth and pour the liquid into a small spray bottle. Add distilled water to fill.
Other Ways to Avoid Mosquito Bites
Essential-oil-based bug sprays have one big disadvantage – they dissipate more quickly than toxic bug sprays. So just as with sunscreen, make sure you reapply at least once every hour when outdoors.
Avoid Peak Times
Mosquitoes tend to overheat as they're feeding and are also disrupted by light, which is why they come out to feed at night. If you're going to be outside for extended periods of time, try to avoid being stationary outside at dusk and night.
Certain plants can help repel bugs, so why not place a few of what are referred to as spatial repellents around your yard and home to help fight against mosquitoes? Citrus plants such as lemon and orange have been used to repel bugs in mosquito-borne-illness-prone regions such as Tanzania, as is the eucalyptus plant. Cinnamosma fragrans, a plant found in Madagascar and South America, has also proven to be an effective bug-repellent plant.
Cover Your Body
Mosquitoes are attracted to sweat and can more easily bite bare skin. So if you can, cover up as much exposed skin as possible to avoid bug bites.
Get Rid of Standing Water
Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water, which is the number one reason to make sure your pots (indoor or outdoor) have good drainage. If you have a bird feeder, a water feature, or a pond in your garden, consider installing a small solar-powered fountain agitator to keep the water agitated enough to keep mosquitoes from laying eggs.
The Dangers of Traditional Mosquito Repellent
DEET, or N,N-Diethyl-m-toluamide, was first developed in the 1940s by the U.S. military to repel bugs by effectively "blinding" them to human scents besides carbon dioxide. But after decades of use worldwide as a bug repellent and crop insecticide, some research has found that DEET may be unsafe.
Toxic Chemicals Have Side Effects
First, DEET contains harsh chemicals that can potentially trigger tumor growth or seizures in mammals (including humans). Breathing difficulties have also been reported at high concentrations, as has temporary burning of the skin and mucous membranes. DEET is also unsafe for small children and pregnant women. It also may have immune-suppressing effects and can suppress acetylcholinesterase (AChE) activity, which means it can have neurotoxic effects.
Not 100% Effective on All Mosquitoes
Not all mosquitoes are repelled by DEET. Even though it's long-lasting, it's still not 100 percent effective against all mosquitoes.
DEET can slowly dissolve nylons and plastics. Spraying it on these types of fabrics may damage your clothing over time.
Points to Remember
There are many ways to naturally protect yourself from bug bites – and specifically mosquito bites – without covering your skin with unsafe chemicals like DEET. Don't be afraid to experiment and find your right mix of plant extracts and essential oils to create your own bug spray and repel bugs naturally.
Heal Mosquito Bites Naturally
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†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.