As we roll into the summer months, it’s hard to not want to spend your entire day outside. But this can easily be ruined by the bugs that we have to share the outdoors with. Thankfully, there are a handful of essential oil bug repellents that don’t require the use of toxic substances like DEET to keep the bugs away.
Not to mention, some of the viruses ticks and mosquitoes carry are pretty harmful if contracted. Depending on the tick, they have the ability to spread health-damaging bacteria and viruses, which can seriously impair someone if they’re not careful.
Ticks and Disease
Bacteria, viruses and microscopic protozoans are all transferable by ticks – if they’re affected, that is. Ticks pick up pathogens from biting an infected animal (like a rodent), and during feeding, the disease-causing organisms living inside the rodent then transfer to the tick.
The most common tick people come across is the American dog tick (also known as the wood tick) and the black-legged tick (also known as the deer tick). The black-legged tick causes the most tick-borne diseases than any other species of tick (1).
Diseases that can be transmitted by ticks include:
– Lyme Disease
– Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
– Powassan Virus disease
– Borrelia miyamotoi Disease
– Borrelia mayonii Disease
Most signs or symptoms of a tick-borne disease occurs after a few days or weeks after being bit. It is important to see your doctor as soon as you can after a tick bite, even if you don’t have symptoms. Saving the tick for lab testing is also a smart move.
With that being said, how can we prevent these life-debilitating diseases without compromising our experience of the great outdoors? While most people would turn to conventional bug repellents that contain DEET, I highly recommend you do not poison yourself with this chemical.
DEET has been linked with skin irritation, respiratory effects, rashes, and even neurological effects. I talked about the potential dangers of DEET in a previous post. DEET exposure has even caused death in some individuals, as a result of direct application to the skin.
So what do we use instead of conventional bug sprays? Essential oil bug repellents of course!
Top 8 Essential Oil Bug Repellents
Essential oils contain natural compounds that some bugs just can’t stand. But not all essential oils work against bugs. Only a select few are truly effective, and each of these differ in which bugs they keep away.
The active ingredients in essential oils are volatile, so they might be effective for only a short period of time (in my experience – about one hour). After that, you’ll notice the bugs come back quite quickly. Re-application is necessary, but it’s worth it to help protect your health in the long run.
1. Citronella (Cymbopogon winterianus)
The National Pesticide Information Center states that citronella oil acts as an effective repellent of insects by masking scents that are attractive to insects. This makes finding a body more difficult for an insect to locate and target.
Studies have shown that citronella is most effective when combined with vanillin (the essential constituent of vanilla) to extend the time frame of reapplication (over 3 hours!) (2).
You can purchase citronella here.
Effective Against: Mosquitoes and other flying insects. Do not use on bare skin.
2. Lavender (Lavandula augustifolia)
This beautifully scented flower can also help repel bugs. I used it when I was working up in Northern Manitoba, where the bugs are beyond anything I’ve ever seen in my life. Surprisingly, it worked well. I did have to re-apply it every 30 minutes to an hour, but it was totally worth it. Lavender essential oil has been used for centuries to repel bugs and protect clothes and linens from the infestation of moths and other insects. Lavender also helps control the inflammation and itching that comes with bug bites.
You can purchase lavender here.
Effective Against: Mosquitoes, black flies, fleas and other biting insects.
3. Clove (Eugenia caryophyllata)
Clove bud contains the compound eugenol, which kills insects on contact. As a result, insects are more than likely to steer clear of your path when this aroma is on your clothes and/or body. One study found that clove essential oil gave the longest duration of 100% repellency (2-4 hours) against three species of mosquitoes (3) (when compared to citronella, patchouli, makaen and citronella).
You can purchase clove here.
Effective Against: Biting insects like mosquitoes, horse flies, house flies and gnats.
4. Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
Lemongrass is as potent as any commercial bug spray. It contains citronellol and geraniol, and it effective against a wide range of biting insects. Studies have found that when human subjects apply the lemongrass variety Cymbopogon citratus to their skin, they are free from mosquito bites for 3 hours (4).
You can purchase lemongrass here.
Effective Against: Mosquitoes, flies, and other biting insects.
5. Lemon Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus citriodora)
Lemon eucalyptus is an incredibly effective oil against mosquitoes and ticks. This is all made possible by its incredibly high citronellal concentration – over 85%. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed PMD (paramenthane-3,8-diol) – another active ingredient in lemon eucalyptus – as effective against mosquitoes and other insects. In fact, some conventional sunscreens use the natural compound PMD in their formulas as an insect repellent.
You can purchase lemon eucalyptus here.
Effective Against: Mosquitoes and ticks, but not sand flies or gnats. Lasts several hours.
6. Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
Catnip essential oil is so effective that it has been found to repel mosquitoes more effectively than DEET (5). Another study done in 2006 found that catnip oil was the most effective (when compared with thyme, amyris, eucalyptus and cinnamon). It provided over six hours of protection at two different concentrations (6).
You can purchase catnip here.
Effective Against: Mosquitoes, ticks and other flying insects.
7. Virginian Cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana)
Cedar is an incredibly effective essential oil against ticks – in one 2014 study, Virginian cedarwood essential oil killed 100 percent of the black-legged ticks it was tested on (7). Not so surprisingly, cedar chips are often used as a form of natural tick prevention around gardens and yards. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even mentions cedarwood as an effective means of repelling black-legged ticks and other arthropods (8).
You can purchase Virginian cedarwood here.
Effective Against: Ticks, ants, fleas, lice, cockroaches and mites.
8. Rose Geranium (Pelargonium roseum)
Another incredibly effective essential oil against ticks is rose geranium. One study examined over 10 different chemotypes of geranium essential oil and found them to be quite effective at repelling ticks (9). I also read this great article on the Tisserand Institute, which cites several studies indicating geranium essential oil as an effective tick repellent.
You can purchase rose geranium here.
Effective Against: Ticks, mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches, ants, and gnats.
How To Use Essential Oils To Repel Bugs
While I usually rub straight essential oils onto my clothes, I wouldn’t advise doing so. I’ve stained my clothes a couple times by doing so when I go overboard, so here are some tips and tricks as to how to apply essential oil to your clothes and body without staining, and without putting a fully concentrated oil on your skin.
1. Dilute 10 drops of your main essential oil (and a couple drops more of any other essential oil you want to add – you can make a powerful combination by combining the above oils), in four ounces of witch hazel in a spray bottle and spray on your skin and/or clothes. Just make sure you shake up the bottle before spraying.
2. Mix 10 drops of your main essential oil (and a couple drops more of any other essential oil you please), into four ounces of jojoba oil, apricot kernel oil, liquid coconut oil, or other carrier oil. Rub into your skin and be on with your day!
Note: Adding in vanillin (vanilla essential oil) to your homemade solutions may also extend the lasting power of your essential oil bug repellents.