Natural Bug Spray Recipe to Make at Home

A research-backed alternative to DEET.

Tourist spraying insect repellant on herself during hike
There are natural ways to repel insects. Zbynek Pospisil / Getty Images

When you head outside to enjoy nature, there are often biting insects waiting to delight in your company. Even if you are a mosquito magnet, you may not like the idea of spraying synthetic chemicals on yourself or your kids to repel pests. Natural bug sprays are safe and can be an effective way to repel bugs instead.

What Is DEET? 

DEET (known to chemists as N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is the active ingredient used in many insect repellents. When applied to skin or clothing, it fends off biting insects like mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas. It has been found in products sold since the 1950s and an estimated one in three Americans uses a repellent containing DEET each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In the 1980s and ‘90s, there were concerns that DEET was linked to encephalopathy (brain damage) in young children, but the connection was never conclusively proven, according to Consumer Reports. In 1998, the EPA conducted a comprehensive reassessment of DEET. The agency found 46 cases of seizures and four deaths potentially linked to exposure to the chemical. Most of those cases were linked to misuse, like spraying in an enclosed area. A 2014 study published in the journal Parasites and Vectors found "no evidence of severe adverse events associated with recommended DEET use.”

In rare cases, DEET may cause skin rashes, blisters, and mucous membrane irritation according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some lab studies in rats have shown that intense exposure to the chemical can impact the nervous system. DEET is generally safe if used correctly, but there are effective alternatives for those who wish to avoid it.

One alternative to DEET gaining in popularity in recent years is picaridin. The chemical is not known to irritate skin or have the same odor as DEET. In one review of 11 studies published in the Journal of Travel Medicine, researchers concluded that picaridin was as effective as DEET in most cases, and sometimes performed better.

Natural Ingredients for Bug Spray

Most repellents that are applied to your skin have to be registered with the EPA, which means they’ve been evaluated for safety and effectiveness. The agency also evaluates some unregistered natural ingredients used as bug repellents for safety. They haven’t been tested for effectiveness. They include citronella oil, cedar oil, geranium oil, peppermint and peppermint oil, and soybean oil.

Here is a look at some natural ingredients that are sometimes used in insect repellent and the science behind their effectiveness.

Citronella Oil

A longtime, well-known repellent, citronella is known to deter mosquitos for only about two hours. When mixed with vanillin (found in vanilla beans), its effectiveness lasts longer. Citronella oil is considered safe in the U.S. However, it is not used in Canada and Europe because of lack of safety data

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus

Products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) are effective at repelling mosquitoes, according to the CDC. Pule OLE should not be applied directly to the skin, but it can be used safely as a repellent when combined with a base mixture like witch hazel. Oil of lemon eucalyptus is not the same as lemon eucalyptus essential oil, which has not been shown to repel insects.

Peppermint Oil

There’s a modest amount of research that shows that peppermint and peppermint oil work at repelling insects. One study published in Fashion and Textiles found that peppermint and lavender were effective at keeping mosquitoes away from cotton fabrics. Another study suggested that peppermint oil may have some properties that repel spiders.

Garlic Oil

It’s not just vampires. Research suggests that garlic oil may help repel ticks. In one study, garlic oil was sprayed in backyards and showed promise in cutting back the number of black-legged ticks.

Geraniol Oil

With its pleasant, rose-like smell, geraniol oil is often used for insect control. Research suggests it can repel mosquitoes in diffuser and candle form and is more effective than citronella. Studies have found that it can both kill and repel insects, without many side effects.

Rosemary Oil

Mosquitoes don’t like this aromatic herb. Research has found that a 20% solution of rosemary can protect against one of the mosquitoes that causes malaria for eight hours. Other concentrations have been shown to repel other species of mosquitoes.

Catnip Oil

Alluring to cats but not so attractive to mosquitoes, the essential oils in catnip have been found to be an effective insect deterrent. One study published in Scientific Reports found that for the first two hours, catnip oil repelled more than 95% of mosquitoes. In some cases, it was more effective than DEET.

Natural Mosquito Repellent Recipe 

To make your own natural mosquito repellent, you’ll need an essential oil plus a base, like witch hazel, vodka, or olive oil.

Supplies

  • Essential oil of your choice, like oil of lemon eucalyptus
  • Base mixture, like witch hazel
  • Spray bottle

Instructions

In the bottle, mix one part essential oil to 10 parts of your base mixture. That’s one drop of oil for every 10 drops of base mixture.

Shake well each time before using. Spray away from eyes and face.

Other Natural Ways to Prevent Bugs 

If you don’t want to spray anything on your body to repel insects, there are other natural ways to deter bugs from biting you.

  • Try placing plants that repel unwanted insects in your garden.
  • Because mosquitoes are attracted to dark colors, wear whites, khakis, and pastels.
  • Avoid being outdoors at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active.
  • Make your yard less attractive to mosquitoes by eliminating standing water, using a fan, and installing bat houses.
  • Avoid heavily scented perfumes, soaps, lotions, and other personal care products that can attract bugs.