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Repel Bugs not Humans

Posted on November 05, 2011 0

Repel Bugs not Humans! - How to make safe and effective do-it-yourself insect repelling perfumes

By Tracey TieF, Certified Natural Health Practitioner

Many people, especially new parents, who want to work on reducing their exposure to toxins in their daily life, wonder what is worse; the toxins in conventional bug sprays or the torture of bug bites and possibility of infection?

If it can kill a bug, what's it doing to my kid?

In my opinion as a health practitioner and mother of two, the toxins in your average insect repellent are far worse than the bites in the long run. DEET, permethrins and other common insect repellent ingredients are neurotoxic insecticides that you are directed to apply to your skin, and worse, the skin of your vulnerable children! Added to these "chemical name" ingredients are the usual toxins found in the base lotions and creams: parabens, petroleum by-products like "mineral oil", color, fragrance and so forth. Applying the cancer and hormonal disruption risks carried by these ingredients creates the very real potential for neurological and organ damage. Pregnant and nursing women need to be especially careful to avoid these chemicals and they should never be used on babies and children. What it comes down to is this: If it can kill a bug, it can harm you.

Don't smell human!

As with many natural and traditional ways of managing the sometimes unwanted effects of our environment, it's safest and most effective to begin with prevention strategies. Bugs are attracted to our human smell: sweet scents, perfumes, the carbon dioxide we exhale and our own very personal scent.

My father worked in Nistassinan (the ancestral homeland of the Innu, an Aboriginal people of Eastern Quebec and Labrador, Canada) where the black flies pick your bones. His advice on how to avoid being mauled by bugs is:

  • Don't eat bananas or other sweet fruits and don't drink fruit juices.
  • Don't bathe, but if you must, do not use any scented soaps or body products.
  • Wear light color clothing and screen off areas if you can.
  • Eat garlic, onions and avoid foods high in salt or potassium like potatoes and salty snacks.

Natural ingredients that are proven to work

Contrary to popular belief, some natural, traditional ingredients have been demonstrated - in both cage and field studies - to be just as effective, or even more effective, as the Vietnam War era insecticidal toxin N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide commonly known as DEET. Examples abound:

  • A product containing 40% oil of lemon eucalyptus (Eucalyptus citriodora), with its high concentration of citronellal, was just as effective as products containing high concentrations of DEET.1
  • Non toxic, skin healing neem oil (Azadirachta indica) is mosquito repellent for up to 12 hours even in 1-2% concentrations!2
  • Citronella oil's (Cymbopogon winterianus) mosquito repellence has also been verified by research, including effectiveness in repelling Aedes aegypti mosquitoes when applied every half hour.3
  • Lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus and other types)
  • Catnip (Nepeta cataria) and geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)essential oils, combined with soybean oil (Soja hispida), for example, were found to be effective insect repellents, according to an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.4

I believe that all botanicals traditionally used to repel bugs do the job, but most have not been the subject of controlled studies to demonstrate their effectiveness. Nevertheless, these ingredients make great additions to a natural bug spray.

Repel bugs, not humans

There are many naturally occurring scents that repel bugs, but after considering skin safety, we may also consider composing the blend as we would a perfume - using variety to decrease the chances of sensitization and adding base notes to fix the blend. Below are examples of insect repelling essential oils.

Please see the Editor's Essential Oil Safety Note at the end of the article.

Top to Middle Notes:

  • Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
  • Cajeput (Melaleuca quinquenervia)
  • Catnip oil (Nepeta cataria with Nepatalactone)
  • Citronella (Cymbopagon nardus)
  • All Eucalyptus oils (repels mosquitoes), but especially Lemon Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus citriodora)
  • Garlic (Allium sativum)
  • Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
  • Lavender (Lavandula officinalis)
  • Lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus and other types)
  • Marjoram (Origanum marjorana)
  • Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • Sage (Salvia lavandulifolia)
  • Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)

Middle to Base Notes:

  • Cedarwoods (Juniperus mexicana and others)
  • Marigold (Calendula officinalis)
  • Neem oil (Azadirachta indica)
  • Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)
  • Yarrow (Alchellia millefolium)

Also repellent are: Yarrow (Achillea alpina) (mosquitoes), Beautyberry (Callicarpa American) and Neem oil, although technically not an essential oil. This is pressed oil that is very thick and consequently good used as carrier oil.

Beeswax can be added to any blend in order to create an ointment that keeps the essential oils on the skin longer. Soybean oil (Soja hispida) is known to be repellent and makes a good carrier oil. Surprisingly non lemon-y and varied blends can be created using the ingredients above.

Floral Insect Repellent

  • Geranium(Pelargonium graveolens)
  • Lavender (Lavandula officinalis)
  • Marigold (Calendula officinalis)

Herbaceous Insect Repellent

  • Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
  • Marjoram (Origanum marjorana)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • Cedarwoods (Juniperus mexicana and others)

Musky Insect Repellent

  • Sage (Salvia lavandulifolia)
  • Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
  • Neem oil (Azadirachta indica)
  • Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)

Minty Insect Repellent

  • Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
  • Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
  • Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
  • Cedarwoods (Juniperus mexicana and others)

Recipe for a (Don't) Bite Me Perfume Spray

Makes one 120ml/4 ounce glass atomizer bottle. Cut your atomizer straw to fit your bottle, measuring from the neck of the bottle to the bottom.

Measure the following into a glass measuring cup:

  • 35ml vodka or witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) or apple cider vinegar (acetic acid and aqua from Pyrus Malus)
  • 5ml vegetable glycerine

Essential oils:

  • 30 drops lemon eucalyptus (Eucalyptus citriodora)
  • 25 drops cajeput (Melaleuca quinquenervia)
  • 15 drops lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus)
  • 10 drops patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)
  • 10 drops lavender (Lavandula officinalis)

Mix well by pouring the blend back and forth between two glass measuring cups.

Add 35ml aloe vera gel juice (Aloe barbadensis) and mix again.

Pour into your glass bottle. Fill to the bottom of the neck with Soybean oil (Soja hispida) and put on the atomizer top. Shake each time before using. Apply to exposed skin and lightly over clothing up to every 20 minutes.

If you want to make your own, be sure that you use a combination of three to five essential oils and that you check your ingredients to make sure that your blend will be skin-safe and will repel the insects you intend to avoid. If you want to buy an off the shelf product, look it on the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database to determine its safety first. More info here.

Editor's Essential Oil Safety Note:

Avoid use during pregnancy: (Basil, Cajeput, Cedarwood, Citronella, Garlic, Peppermint, Rosemary, and Sage)

Avoid use with epilepsy: (Rosemary, Sage)

Avoid topical use, dermal irritant: (Basil, Cajeput, Citronella, and Garlic)

Avoid using full strength blends and especially those with potentially irritating essential oils on children. It is best to create a separate, milder blend for children, using half the amount of essential oils used in a blend for adults.


1 Carroll SP, Loye J, 2006, Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association 22(3):507-514, 510

2 Mishra AK, Singh N, Sharma VP, 1995 "Use of neem oil as a mosquito repellent in tribal villages of mandla district, madhya pradesh", Indian J Malariol, Sep;32(3):99-103 Pubmed

3 Jeong-Kyu KIM, Chang-Soo KANG, Jong-Kwon LEE, Young-Ran KIM, Hye-Yun HAN, Hwa Kyung YUN, Evaluation of Repellency Effect of Two Natural Aroma Mosquito Repellent Compounds, Citronella and Citronellal, Entomological Research 35 (2), 117-120, 2005

4 http://www.homs.com/NEJM.pdf

Tracey TieF is a Certified Natural Health Practitioner who operates Anarres Natural Health in downtown Toronto, Ontario. Tracey is also a Technical Consultant for New Directions Aromatics.

She carries on a family tradition in the healing arts and has an extensive background in physical therapies and the healing arts. Tracey qualified as a Registered Aromatherapy Health Practitioner and Certified Reflexology Health Practitioner through The School of Holistic Studies, Institute of Aromatherapy. Tracey has a passion and mission for teaching people how to take care of themselves and make their own healthy products! Tracey can be reached at anarreshealth@gmail.com or through her website at www.anarreshealth.ca

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