Summertime brings hot, muggy days, the perfect weather for flowers – and bugs – to bloom. Mosquitoes, stinging ants, and ticks lurk in the soft green grass, and their stings can harbor infectious diseases including West Nile virus, dengue fever, malaria, and Lyme disease.
Most commercial bug sprays, though, can be as damaging as the diseases they aim to prevent. N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, more commonly known as DEET, is the current gold standard among insect repellants. That protection, though, comes with a price.
First tested in the 1980s in the Everglades, the researchers found that 25% of those using DEET experienced immediate side effects such as rashes and skin irritation, numb or burning lips, headaches, nausea, dizziness, confusion, and insomnia. According to Duke University pharmacologist Mohamed Abou-Donia, rats exposed long-term to DEET had diffuse brain death and behavioral changes. Abou-Donia recommends avoiding products containing DEET.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of DEET because of their smaller body mass, and prolonged exposure can cause neurological symptoms including seizures, coma, and even death.
Essential oils offer a welcome alternative to toxic chemical insecticides. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) approved lemon eucalyptus Eucalyptus citriodora essential oil as an insect repellant in 2005. Citrus essential oils, e.g. lemon, orange, and bergamot, are also good insect repellants, but they can cause sensitivity to the sun, and in the case of bergamot, even skin cancer. Lemon eucalyptus Eucalyptus citriodora is an effective, safe alternative to citrus essential oils.
Juniper Juniperus communis essential oil was almost as effective as DEET for repelling mosquitoes.
A combination of the following essential oil was as effective at a 5% concentration than DEET at a 20% concentration. In other words, this combination was 4 times stronger than DEET for repelling mosquitoes:
- Holy basil Origanum sanctum essential oil
- Peppermint Mentha piperita essential oil
- Eucalyptus Eucalyptus globulus essential oil
- Mexican mint Plectranthus amboinicus essential oil
This is exciting news if you want to repel insects and avoid toxic bug sprays!
Before you run to the store to buy the essential oils, though, you need to be savvy about how to mix the essential oils and apply them safely, both for adults and children.
One drop of an essential oil is roughly equivalent to 30 cups of tea! Essential oils are so concentrated that they border on a synthetic substance.
Follow these guidelines carefully. Often people think, “Oh, a little is good, a whole lot must be a whole lot better!” That is not true with natural medicines, and especially not with essential oils.
Bug Spray for Adults (16 years old and up)
- Holy basil Origanum sanctum essential oil, 30 drops
- Peppermint Mentha piperita essential oil, 30 drops
- Eucalyptus Eucalyptus globulus essential oil 30 drops
- Mexican mint Plectranthus amboinicus essential oil 30 drops
Use a 4-ounce glass bottle with a sprayer top. If you will be using up the bug spray quickly, a plastic bottle works as well. Be careful – if essential oils are left in contact with plastic for an extended period of time, they will eat through the plastic.
Fill the bottle half with water (2 ounces), and half with high proof alcohol (2 ounces), ideally Everclear or the highest proof vodka you can purchase.
Add the essential oils. Count the drops carefully.
To apply: shake the bottle to mix thoroughly, and spray with your eyes closed. Cover exposed skin and clothing. Reapply as needed, likely every 2 hours. Use a maximum of 5 times a day. Be cautious using with children and the elderly, as their bodies are more sensitive to essential oils.
Keep in mind that if you are in a swamp, nothing may be effective against mosquitoes! Use common sense.
Use for a maximum of 2 weeks before taking a 2-week break.
You could alternate the above blend every two weeks with the combination of
- Juniper Juniperus communis leaf essential oil 60 drops
- Lemon eucalyptus Eucalyptus citriodora essential oil 60 drops
Follow the same instructions, adding the essential oils to a combination of 2 ounces of water and 2 ounces of high-proof alcohol.
Essential oils offer high potency insect repellants that can rival the effectiveness of DEET. Use them respectfully, though, with the understanding that “natural” bug sprays can be as toxic as chemical ones if misused.
Your essential oil bug spray, used correctly, can help you and your family enjoy the great outdoors – naturally, without the toxic side effects of chemical insect repellants.
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Carroll, J. F., Tabanca, N., Kramer, M., Elejalde, N. M., Wedge, D. E., Bernier, U. R., Coy, M., Becnel, J. J., Demirci, B., Başer, K. H., Zhang, J., & Zhang, S. (2011). Essential oils of Cupressus funebris, Juniperus communis, and J. chinensis (Cupressaceae) as repellents against ticks (Acari: Ixodidae) and mosquitoes (Diptera: Culicidae) and as toxicants against mosquitoes. Journal of vector ecology: Journal of the Society for Vector Ecology, 36(2), 258–268. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1948-7134.2011.00166.x
Center for Disease Control. (16 October 1989). Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 38(39), 678-680. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00001475.htm#:~:text=Recent%20anecdotal%20reports%20of%20seizures,of%20DEET’s%20potential%20adverse%20effects.&text=Since%201961%2C%20at%20least%20six,reported%20(1%2D6).
Earthtalk, (12 June, 2008). Is it true that the DEET used in most mosquito repellents is toxic? Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-it-true-that-the-deet/
Lalthazuali, & Mathew, N. (2017). Mosquito repellent activity of volatile oils from selected aromatic plants. Parasitology research, 116(2), 821–825. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00436-016-5351-4
McConnell R, Fidler AT, Chrislip D, NIOSH. (1986). Everglades National Park health hazard evaluation report. Cincinnati, Ohio: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, NIOSH health hazard evaluation report no. HETA-83-085-1757.
Tenenbein, M. (1987). Severe toxic reactions and death following the ingestion of diethyltoluamide-containing insect repellents. JAMA, 258,1509-11.