No one likes an insect bite. Fleas, ticks, mosquitos or otherwise. Insects have likely been around longer than we have, and they certainly act like they own the place. They are such an ever-present nuisance in our lives; we even use their name to insult someone who is annoying us! Whether you are trying to avoid the spread of blood-borne diseases or simply avoid the buzzing and biting of bugs, there are many forms of insect repellent to help you do just that. Essential oil insect repellents offer a way to blend age old remedies with scientific evidence, creating the best of both worlds as a powerful natural insect repellent.
How Insect Repellent Works
As the name may suggest, Insect repellents act to repel insects. How they do that is the difference in many forms of insect repellents. Insects like mosquitos are particularly hard to repel. This is because mosquitos have evolved over the ages to be very efficient hunters. They hone in on their targets by detecting things like body heat, exhaled carbon dioxide, even the odor of your sweat. The idea of being the prey rather than the hunter may be disturbing enough for most to rush out and buy insect repellents!
Insect repellents work by either confusing the bugs or throwing them off your scent. Insects like flies and mosquitos smell through their antennae; which are lined with olfactory glands. These antennae work much like the human nose; they are drawn to some scents and repelled by others. Some scents are even believed to disrupt the normal functioning of these glands, confusing the insect still further. Most repellents aim to act on these receptors and repel or otherwise disorient the insects.
Standard Insect Repellents
Over the years, various insect repellents have come out to rid our lives of these pesky, yet necessary pests. The most common chemical insect repellents are generally considered safe, yet are known to cause neurological damage. The most common chemical insect repellents are as follows.
DEET has become a household name over the years due to its widespread use and inclusion in most bug repellent products. The actual name of the compound is N, N-Diethyl-3-methylbenzamide; but something about it is less catchy than “DEET”. The compound was created by the USDA, and was used by the United States Army as a warfare tactic.
The use of DEET is associated with a number of overlooked problems, though. DEET absorbs into the skin, and can be found in the blood, plasma, or urine of users. DEET has also been linked to skin irritation ranging from mild to severe. For this reason, DEET should not be worn under the skin or mixed with lotions or sunscreens. The act of rubbing in lotions containing DEET can actually force more of the molecules into the skin. A collective study found that National Park employees more consistently exposed to DEET were more likely to have impaired cognitive function, insomnia, and mood disturbances when compared to their lesser exposed co-workers. Rare cases of DEET-related seizures have also been reported.
Aside from skin issues, DEET is also a solvent. It may dissolve synthetic fabrics such as spandex, nylon, rayon, or polyester. Levels of DEET have been found in low concentrations in various water bodies where use or production of the compound is heavy. It also shows some toxic effects for cold water fish and fresh water plankton.
With its full name, Ethyl Butylacetylaminopropionate, this synthetic insect repellent certainly isn’t memorable. IR3535 is a DEET-free repellent which acts on an insect’s sense of smell; either repelling or confusing them.
Ir3535 was evaluated by the World Health Organization (WHO). Their findings indicated that the compound showed only mild side effects. Skin irritation can occur, especially if the compound gets into the eyes.
Permethrin is a bit of a reckless chemical. Permethrin doesn’t repel insects; rather it kills them indiscriminately. This has gotten the chemical a bad reputation, as its extensive use may be a contributing factor to colony collapse disorder, and the death of animals which eat affected bugs. Higher doses can kill domesticated animals and cause damage to humans. Permethrin was found in the breast milk of mothers exposed to it as well.
Icardin is much easier to say than hydroxyethyl isobutyl piperidine carboxylate, the chemical’s full name. Icardin is a safer alternative to skin-irritating DEET, and is one of the repellants recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It will also not dissolve plastics. The main issues with Icardin are skin irritation and its short half-life. A similar application of Icardin will last half as long as DEET. Users trade more applications throughout the day for less of the chemical within their bodies.
Natural insect Repellents
There are many ancient practices associated with repelling insects. For centuries before their chemical counterparts existed, these natural insect repellants were used to keep the bugs at bay.
Indigenous peoples of Africa and India often burned elephant dung to repel insects. The moisture content of the dung created a long lasting smoke, which repelled flies and mosquitos. The peoples of India and Egypt also traditionally burned Neem leaves to repel insects.
Native American medicinal practices offer many different ways to repel insects. The Iroquois tribe would rub bear grease mixed with cedar on their skin. The grease would make it difficult to penetrate the skin, and the cedar would repel the insects. The Cherokee tribe would grind up goldenseal root and apply it to the skin with the help of animal grease as well.
Neem oil also has insect repelling properties. A recent study used a solution of neem oil and coconut oil to repel mosquitos. The exposed skin of volunteers was covered with the solution and full protection from insects was achieved for twelve hours.
Essential Oil Insect Repellents
As far as natural repellents are concerned, the most effective ones are made using essential oils. The potent scents of many pure essential oils act to confuse or repel insects much like their chemical counterparts. Though there are many oils on the list of possible repellents, we will cover the most promising.
1. Citronella Essential Oil
Citronella has become a household name in natural bug repellents. From candles containing the oils to diluted sprays; citronella is found in virtually every natural insect repellent around. This is due to the compound citronellal. Citronellal makes up around 80 percent of citronella oil, and is found in many other oils on the repellent list as well. Citronella prevents mosquito bites by acting on receptors in the olfactory glands in their antennae. It is these same receptors which are acted upon by DEET containing products. Unfortunately, citronella products are used in much lower concentrations than their chemical counterparts, which is why they are considered “less effective”. In reality, citronella is an effective repellent at higher concentrations. This study found that concentrations of 50-100 percent citronella oil were needed to be completely preventative to mosquito bites. Various concentrations above 10 percent are effective as well, just not for as long.
2. Lemon Eucalyptus Essential Oil
Lemon Eucalyptus oil, coming from the Eucalyptus citriodora tree, is one of the most promising natural insect repellents on the market. The active ingredient within the oil, p-menthane-3,8-diol (PMD), is the only natural repellent recommended by the CDC to prevent mosquito bites. It is equally effective against ticks. The difference between the effectiveness of lemon eucalyptus oil and DEET is the half-life of the product.
When applied correctly, one study found that lemon eucalyptus essential oil outperforms DEET. As this study was based on field research of workers in an area where Malaysia was present, the results carry a little more weight. A 30% topical application of lemon eucalyptus oil would simply need to be applied 3 times a day to achieve the desired effect. For many people, an extra application is a small price to pay to keep unnecessary chemicals out of their bodies.
3. Clove Bud Essential Oil
Clove bud essential oil has many benefits. From high antioxidant content, to its function as an analgesic, the oil from the Syzygium aromaticum plant has many uses. The active compounds in clove bud essential oil also make it a great bug repellent. In fact, one study found clove bud essential oil to be longer lasting than some of the best preventative essential oils. A concentration of clove bud essential oil was found to give full repellency for up to twice as long as other essential oils. Adding clove bud essential oil to any recipe can increase its effectiveness.
4. Lemongrass Essential Oil
Revered by native cultures for its use as a bug repellent, lemongrass has been receiving a lot of attention recently. Lemongrass essential oil is a potent anti-inflammatory, and even shows promise as an anti-cancer compound. Thanks to the presence of citronellal, Lemongrass can also be an important ingredient in your bug repellent recipe. Just one of the many benefits of lemongrass essential oil!
5. Rosemary Essential Oil
The strong scent of rosemary essential oil is delicious to humans, and disgusting to insects. Ticks especially. One study found that a 10 percent concentration of rosemary essential oil repels ticks very effectively. A diluted blend can be applied to the clothes, especially the legs of pants and socks, to avoid ticks. You can use rosemary alongside a blend of other essential oils in order to repel a wide variety of insects.
6. Patchouli Essential Oil
The benefits of patchouli essential oil are actually pretty surprising. The popular scent of the hippie era, patchouli essential oil actually plays host to a great number of bioactive compounds. These compounds make patchouli essential oil a great bug repellent. Researchers in this study found patchouli essential oil to be only one of a handful of truly effective oils for repelling mosquitos.
7. Cajeput Essential Oil
Termites can be just as much of a nuisance as any other bug. Luckily, there are repellents for them too! One study recently found cajeput essential oil works great for termites. The essential oil not only repels them, but can continue killing termites and eggs for up to one day after application. Cajeput essential oil can be added to carrier oil such as linseed and applied to wood to avoid or help remove a termite infestation.
8. Cinnamon Leaf Essential Oil
Cinnamon leaf essential oil acts to repel or even kill mosquitos. One study found that cinnamon leaf oil kills mosquitos more effectively than DEET. The study focused on different compounds’ ability to kill mosquito larvae, finding that cinnamaldehyde, the active ingredient in cinnamon leaf essential oil, worked best. This essential oil is great to spray around the outside of the house to keep mosquitos at bay.
9. Eucalyptus Essential Oil
Eucalyptus essential oil is another all-around oil that is great for every cabinet. The list of eucalyptus essential oil’s benefits is long, and luckily, includes natural pest control. Bugs like ants, flies, and fleas detest the strong scent of eucalyptus essential oil. Placing the oil on cotton balls around the house or spraying down your clothes with the oil are great ways to use the fresh scent of eucalyptus to avoid household pests.
10. Lavender Essential Oil
The active compounds in essential oils make all the difference in their effectiveness. In the case of lavender essential oil, these active compounds provide a sharp, floral smell which many bugs can’t stand. Ticks, fleas and flies are especially susceptible to lavender oil. Lavender essential oil has the extra benefit of being used as a “neat” oil; meaning that it can generally be applied directly to the skin. If you do apply it directly to the skin, test a small area for irritation first. The benefits of lavender essential oil leave no wonder why it is the most popular oil in aromatherapy.
11. Peppermint Essential Oil
The fresh, cooling scent of peppermint essential oil is great to us, and horrible to bugs! Cockroaches, ants, ticks, and lice all loathe the scent of peppermint essential oil. The extremely sharp scent of the oil acts to irritate and repel the pests. For household pests, place a few drops on cotton balls and place them in the corners of your house. Places like pet beddings can also be sprayed with a peppermint oil solution.
12. Vanilla Oleoresin
This is an ingredient that should be present in every single essential oil beg repellent recipe. This is due to the long half-life of vanilla oleoresin. The compounds within the resin are slightly repellent by themselves. The real benefit of using vanilla oleoresin for your recipes is due to its ability to reduce the evaporation rate of other essential oils. For things like natural perfumes and natural bug repellents, this means less applications and a much more effective solution.
Other Essential Oils for Repelling Insects
There is also a long list of essential oils that barely missed the cut of this discussion. This is mainly due to the high evaporation rate of essential oils. Oils like cedar wood essential oil, geranium essential oil, thyme essential oil, lemon essential oil, tea tree essential oil, yarrow essential oil, garlic essential oil, and more are all potent bug repellents, they are simply understudied or not given credit due to the volatility of essential oils.
Essential Oil Insect Repellent Recipe
- 4 oz distilled water
- 3 oz witch hazel
- 1 oz apple cider vinegar
- 30 drops citronella essential oil
- 30 drops eucalyptus essential oil
- 30 drops lemongrass essential oil
- 30 drops vanilla oleoresin
- 20 drops lavender essential oil
- 20 drops rosemary essential oil
- 20 drops patchouli essential oil
- Add ingredients to an 8oz spray bottle and shake well. Before each application, shake vigorously again. Apply to clothing and gear every 2 hours for maximum protection.
Note: Essential oils in high concentrations are strong. Recipes such as this work best when applied to the clothing around the skin. Alternatively, make a lighter solution to apply to the skin often.*
One Last Note
Most of the active ingredients in essential oils are volatile, meaning they evaporate quickly at room temperature. This is why they require more applications than their chemical counterparts. Higher concentrations are usually required for persistent pests like mosquitos. Additionally, mixing them with non-volatile oils like coconut oil and grapeseed oil can improve their effectiveness.
Keep in mind that pure essential oils are powerful. They should be diluted; and pay attention to any reactions your body may have to the oil. Children and pregnant or nursing women should only use potent essential oils under the guidance of a healthcare practitioner. It is also important to be sure your essential oils are pure; to be certain the right levels of bioactive compounds are available.
Have a natural insect repellent recipe to share? We would love to hear about the many recipes you use for natural bug repellent in the comments below.