What could be better than enjoying a summer evening outdoors? A summer evening free of insect bites and stings, that’s what! Whether you are going out for an evening jog or gearing up for a weekend camping trip, steering clear of bugs is probably on the top of your to-do list.
Insect repellents that contain DEET (the common name for the chemical N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) are very effective, but you may worry that these repellents are bad for you or the environment. You may be wondering whether there are any natural products that can help to keep the bugs away. Read more to find out!
A thousand years ago, DEET-based insect repellents were not an option. So how did our ancestors avoid being eaten alive by bugs? Plants!
Most plants contain compounds that repel insects. These compounds help the plants protect themselves from being eaten by insects. People have taken advantage of these insect-repelling properties for thousands of years. Some of these practices are still used today in developing countries. Bruising plants to release their insect-repelling compounds or burning them have both been used to keep homes and outdoor areas free of insects.
There are a variety of plants and oils that have been used to keep insects away. Some of the most common include:
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the essential oil from lemon eucalyptus is an effective repellent for mosquitoes, biting flies, and gnats. It is the only plant-based repellent that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend for use in areas where insect-borne diseases are common. There are many different brands of insect repellents that contain lemon eucalyptus available.
Essential oils and extracts from plants in the citronella genus are often used as insect repellents. Citronella is one of the most familiar plant-based repellents. Studies have shown that citronella-based products can provide protection from insects for about two hours. Citronella candles have been shown to reduce insect bites by about 50%.
Neem has been advertised as a natural alternative to DEET-based repellents. Neem oil is made from the fruits and seeds of the neem tree, which is native to India. It has not been approved by the EPA and it could cause skin irritation. Though it may provide some protection, there is not enough evidence to recommend neem.
Essential oils from plants like culinary herbs, grasses, pine, and cedar are commonly used as insect repellents. The most effective include oils from thyme, cedar, peppermint, and clove. They may be effective for 1-2 hours. Essential oils are exempt from registration with the EPA, but they could be irritating to the skin.
Some oils have shown promise as insect repellents. Oils that have been used in repellents include soybean oil, palm nut oil, coconut oil, and andiroba oil, which are similar to neem oil. Oils can also be used with other repellents by slowing the evaporation of the repellents from the skin.
Garlic has been touted as a natural insect repellent, but studies have not been able to prove this. While garlic may have some effect when rubbed on the skin, eating garlic has not been shown to keep bugs at bay.
The hunt for an effective natural insect repellent is in part based on the belief that natural products may be safer than repellents made with DEET. However, even natural products can cause skin irritation, and some are not recognized by the EPA. DEET has not been found to be dangerous for children as young as two months. If your child is under two months old, use mosquito netting as protection. The EPA also does not suggest any additional precautions for women who are pregnant or nursing. As with any repellent, it is important to use the correct dose and to keep it away from the eyes, nose, and mouth.
Whether you choose a repellent that contains DEET or one made with only natural ingredients, there are other steps you can take to keep the bugs at bay:
- Eliminate standing water in outdoor spaces, such as rain gutters, or buckets.
- Change the water in bird baths, fountains, wading pools, and rain barrels at least once a week.
- Cover gaps in doors and windows.
- Cover baby carriers with netting.
- When possible, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants outdoors.
- Stay indoors at sunrise, sunset, and early evening.
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Last reviewed October 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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