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Natural Insect Repellents: Alternatives to Harmful DEET

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With the warm (and sometimes humid) summer weather, often come mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects.

West Nile, dengue fever and malaria are just a few of the scary diseases that could result from mosquito bites. Many people resort to popular insect repellents that contain DEET, but studies have found that DEET can be dangerous and harmful to your health.

According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, "Some persons who used products containing a high concentration such as 50 or 75 percent of DEET or who were exposed to excessive amounts of DEET experienced rashes, blisters, and skin and mucous membrane irritation. In a few cases of overdose and misuse, brain effects (encephalopathy) and seizures occurred in children.”

Research done by Duke University pharmacologist, Mohamed Abou-Donia, has concluded that side effects such as memory loss, behavioral changes in rats, and slurred speech can also result from the use of DEET.

Not to fret, there are natural, alternative home remedies for insect repellent!

1. Repellent soap: Use a castile soap as a base and add 15-20 drops of essential oil per ounce of soap. Wash before and after going outside. Many essential oils have been shown effective in repelling bugs. Smart oils to use include: lemon balm (citronella), pennyroyal, lavender, and rose geranium.

2. Neem oil: Made from an herb used in Ayurvedic Medicine. It can be purchased easily online!

3. Repellent recipe for clothing: In a mixture of four parts rubbing alcohol and six parts water, add 20-40 drops of citronella essential oil and 10-20 drops of lavender, eucalyptus, rose and geranium essential oils. (Use this mixture very sparingly on skin, as the rubbing alcohol and oils can be irritating and hazardous if used often.)

4. Repellent recipe for skin: ¼ cup of Organic Apple Cider Vinegar mixed with 25 drops of essential oil. Apply a few drops to skin and clothes.

5. Indoor/outdoor repellent: Although they don’t provide complete protection, citronella candles are a easy and effective way to ward off bugs around you, whether inside or out.

6. DIY air-repellent: In a tin or small glass jar, soak a sponge or rag in a solution of essential oil diluted with water (lavender needs no dilution). Allow it to sit for at least 24 hours and open the jar or tin when needed. Effective essential oils for this purpose include lavender, citronella, eucalyptus, pennyroyal, peppermint, and lemongrass. Wash hands after touching saturated cloth or rag and re-saturate after use.

7. DIY repellent candle: Add drops of lavender oil to the wax of an already-burning candle.

8. Oral Supplements: Ingesting garlic with food, or through (odorless) capsules, drinking two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar a day, or loading up on B1 can also help keep away the bugs.

9. Oil of lemon-eucalyptus: CDC studies have found this essential oil to be even more effective than DEET for warding off mosquitoes!

10. Store-bought: Soy-based repellents like Bite-Blocker have been found to be just as effective as DEET!

Although we would all prefer to use natural treatments instead of chemical ones, coming down with Dengue Fever during a trip you've planned for a year is NOT fun. Weigh the risks and benefits of natural insect repellents before deciding to throw all your eggs into one basket. Since everyone is different (for some reason I'll end up covered in bites while my travel-buddy is bite free), stick to what you know works when traveling or living in high-risk areas.


Hayes S. Best bug relief. Natural Health [serial online]. July 2009;39(7):81-82.
BioMed Central (2009, August 6). Popular Insect Repellent Deet Is Neurotoxic. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 16, 2011.

News Service. (2004, July 16). Sweet-Smelling Cinnamon Oil Kills Mosquito Larvae. Environment News Service. Retrieved August 8, 2011.

Griffin, M. (n.d.). Natural Insect Repellent: Non-Toxic Options for Insect Control. WebMD - Better information. Better health.. Retrieved August 8, 2011. http://www.webmd.com/health-ehome-9/safer-bug-spray

Bond, A. B. (n.d.). Best Natural Insect Repellents and Homemade Herbal Bug Sprays - The Daily Green . Going Green, Fuel Efficiency, Organic Food, and Green Living - The Daily Green . Retrieved August 9, 2011. http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/natural-insect-repellents-460608#fbIndex3

Medicine News and Communications. (n.d.). Duke Pharmacologist Says Animal Studies on DEET's Brain Effects Warrant Further Testing and Caution in Human Use . DukeHealth.org. Retrieved August 8, 2011. http://www.dukehealth.org/health_library/news/5500

Reviewed on August 23, 2011
by Maryann Gromisch
Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment4 Comments

I use Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) and love it. Repel, Cutter and Coleman all make OLE based products that can be found at sporting good stores, Wal-mart, and on-line.

September 14, 2011 - 10:58am

Hi Danielle
I have a range at homeopathy world that includes a travel kit - but just google and see which ones you like best. The advantage of mine is it fits in the palm of your hand so you can travel light. There's lots of free advice / training too on my blog.
be well

August 30, 2011 - 9:32am

Wow! These kits sound unbelievably helpful! Where's the best place to get one?

August 24, 2011 - 5:55pm

Ledum 30c taken for 7 days prior to departure makes you much less attractive to mosquitoes. A homeopathic travel kit is a must have especially if you are traveling to more exotic regions.

August 23, 2011 - 1:10pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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