Natural Insect Repellents

Making human flesh unappetizing to mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and fleas is an age-old preoccupation.  The earliest insect repellents included smoke, mud, and various plant substances.  Our contemporary contribution is DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), a powerful insecticide found in over 400 repellents.  DEET can peel paint, damage rayon and spandex, and melt plastic.  Up to 56 percent of DEET applied to the skin enters the bloodstream, and reactions to it include skin rashes, lethargy, muscle spasms, nausea, and irritability.  An extreme reaction can cause seizures and even death.  So it’s hardly worth using DEET to deter insects unless you’re someplace with high rates of insect-borne disease or you experience severe allergic reactions to bites and stings.

natural insect repellent

There are natural alternatives to DEET, made primarily from plant essential oils, that can protect you in less threatening circumstances. Although “there is no natural repellent as effective as DEET,” says Eve McClure, executive vice-president of Quantum, a natural repellent manufacturer in Eugene, Oregon, “natural repellents do help ward off mosquitoes, black flies, gnats, and fleas, and they may provide some protection against ticks.”

Ticks, the carriers of Lyme disease, are among the most worrisome pests.

You don’t have to be in the tropics or in an area at high risk for insect-borne disease to take the following steps.  Hordes of insects your own backyard can lead you to seek extra protection.  Debra Nuzzi-St. Claire, an herbalist in Boulder, Colorado, has these suggestions (see “Making Your Own Natural Insect Repellent,” below, for essential oil combination):

  • Spray clothing and bedding (including the mosquito netting of your tent, if you’re camping) with an alcohol-base repellent.
  • Pour several drops of the combined pure essential oils onto a candle.
  • Place a few drops on cloth or paper strips and hang them around the room, especially by doors and windows.
  • Add the base oil to shampoos and liquid soaps.

Most natural insect repellents are made with an essential oil distilled from citronella, a tall, aromatic grass indigenous to Southern Asia.  Its pungent, lemony fragrance is pleasant to most people but objectionable to mosquitoes.  Other aromatic essential oils commonly found in natural insect repellents include cedarwood, lemongrass, eucalyptus, peppermint, pennyroyal, lavender, and bergamot.

These are safe when applied to the skin, but should not be taken internally without the advice of a professional.  Pennyroyal, in particular, is highly toxic if ingested.

Essential oil repellents are available in spray or oil form.  According to Eve McClure, restrictions by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have made it difficult for consumers to identify natural repellents by packaging alone.  Since the EPA classifies all repellents as insecticides, it requires expensive testing, which includes experiments on live animals.  Because most natural repellent manufacturers are unwilling — or financially unable — to comply with EPA guidelines, they cannot promote their products as natural insect repellents.  “We had to remove the bug from our label and change our name from ‘Buzz Away’ to ‘Zzz Away,’ ” says McClure (see “Making Your Own Natural Insect Repellent”).

After the Bite

If mosquitoes, flies, and fleas feast on you in spite of your efforts, Nuzzi-St. Claire recommends applying undiluted tea tree oil to the bites.  Tea tree oil has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties and is usually non-irritating.  Test a small area of skin before applying the oil liberally.  If the essential oil irritates your skin, wash it off with soap and water and dilute the tea tree oil in five parts of jojoba or almond oil before reapplying.  Testing for sensitivity is a good practice when applying any essential oil for the first time.

Sharol Tilgner, a naturopathic physician and natural first-aid expert in Portland, Oregon, recommends applying a drop of peppermint essential oil to insect bites.  “Anything with menthol will increase the circulation in the area and dissipate the anticoagulant that the mosquito has injected into you,” she says.  Other topical treatments for reducing itching and inflammation include cold compresses, lavender essential oil, and calamine lotion.  Dr. Thomas S. Lee, an Arizona naturopathic physician, likes pure lavender oil rubbed into the bite ASAP.  “The Chinese patent medicine White Flower Oil is a clean mentholated formula that works well, too.”

Well-equipped and well-informed, you can take those restorative strolls and hikes with greater confidence.  Carl Mitchell of the Centers for Disease Control in Fort Collins, Colorado says, “People definitely shouldn’t avoid outdoor activities for fear of bug bites and stings.  Just take a few precautions.”

Stings:  The Finer Points

Although bees, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets generally won’t go out of their way to attack, they can be extremely aggressive if you disturb their nests or bother them while they’re feeding.  They’re attracted by perfumes and scented bodycare products, as well as by sweet foods such as ice cream, fruit juices, and watermelon.  Bright-colored clothing can also make you a target.

If you do get stung, the following tips can help minimize the problems:

Bumblebees, wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets can attack repeatedly, so if you get stung, get out of the area immediately.  If you’re stung by a yellow jacket, avoid swatting at it.  Crushing the venom sac releases a chemical that incites its nest-mates to attack.  Honeybees can sting only once, but the stinger and venom sac they leave in your skin pump venom for two to three minutes.  Remove them immediately, being careful not to squeeze the venom sac.  The safest way to do this is to scrape them out with a credit card or the dull edge of a knife.  If the stinger remains behind after you’ve scraped away the venom sac, remove it gently with tweezers.

Making Your Own Natural Insect Repellent

Herbalist Debra Nuzzi-St. Claire suggests combining the following essential oils to make a natural insect repellent:

1/2 ounce citronella oil

1/4 ounce lavender oil

1/8 ounce pennyroyal oil

1/8 ounce tea tree oil

1/8 ounce jojoba oil

Do not use this blend undiluted on your skin.  Follow these instructions for diluting:

To make an insect repellent oil that can be used on your body, add 16 ounces of jojoba or almond oil to the base oil mixture and blend thoroughly.  For an insect repellent spray, add 16 ounces of vodka to the base oil mixture, pour into a spray bottle, and shake before using.


Having recently been in the veld and dealing with ticks on my body, I wondered if there were natural alternatives the harsh chemical tick-repellents on the market.  I have tried many so-called commercial ‘eco-friendly’ tick repellents with limited success.  DEET-based repellents are very effective but their effects on human health make them undesirable. Mosquitoes are are easier to ward off than ticks (which are not insects but arachnids- related to spiders) but  and the tips provided above do work for them.  If you live in southern Africa then you could try khakibos spray or powder.  Khakibos is a well-known home remedy for repelling ticks and fleas in dogs’ baskets- simply spread a few leaves in amongst the bedding.  A fairly common tree found along rivers and watercourses in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, is the Tamboti (Spirostachys africanus). All parts of this tree are poisonous to humans (and DON’T use it for firewood when camping– the smoke can make you very ill!).  However, small pieces of Tamboti wood placed near clothing (in your cupboard, bag, etc.)  or anywhere, act as very good insect repellents. Keep any Tamboti parts away from your water supply (bark is a well-known African fish poison!).

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