Nature is truly remarkable. I believe we were brought into this world with all the tools and natural sources we need to survive. The real challenge is learning how.
The key to repelling bugs in any environment is understanding what it is that attracts them. Foods, plants, scents, colors, the time of day, sweat, and standing or moving water are factors that affect whether an environment is inviting, or not, to a bug.
In this post, we will go into detail about which natural (and unnatural) insect repellents work and how to prevent becoming a bug’s favorite treat.
Nadia (me) versus the wild: How I lost and why the bugs won
I remember going on a hiking trip with my family when I was 20 years old. The hike was in the Patagonia region of Argentina, where the wilderness is majestic and vast, but the critters are inescapable. The point of the trip was to experience the mountains and nature’s beautiful sights.
The day we chose for hiking was clear and showed no signs of rain but the heat and humidity was almost unbearable. We were not prepared for the horse flies (which are bugs the size of flies with the same intentions as mosquitoes). The first three hours of the hike were miserable for me. I tried my best to focus on enjoying the view while going into a physical war in the attempt of protecting my body from the horse flies. I wish I would have been able to make better use of the natural resources available, but at that moment I could only resort to using branches to shoo them away. Those horseflies were relentless - they bit me all over my arms and legs (...right through my leggings!) It was the most frustrating thing ever.
Last November I traveled to Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, two beautiful Belizean islands. In photos, they look like heaven on earth, but if you’re not prepared, it can be a nightmare. My unpreparedness cost me some blood and tears…seriously! In Caye Caulker, I was eaten alive by sandflies. Truth be told, I didn’t know what sand flies were until my legs were covered in bites. When I finally learned what to do to protect myself from this, it was time to travel to Ambergris Caye, where I met an even bigger threat: mosquitos. The baby oil I used to repel the sandflies did not work to repel mosquitos. As my body was starting to heal from one pest, I became an all-you-can-eat buffet for another one. [WARNING: Graphic image of my foot ahead!]
Apart from the itchiness and cuts from constantly scratching my body, I feared I would get dengue.
These life experiences taught me lessons that I will never forget.
I hope that no one will ever have to live through the same mistakes that I did, but in case you find yourself in a bug-infested situation, I will give you all the tools I learned to help you survive and improvise protection from even the hungriest of bugs!
Preventative tips that repel bugs
Perhaps you’re planning a trip to the tropics or you find yourself in a post-disaster scenario where your resources are cut short and you have to defend yourself against nature’s little critters. Whichever situation you’re in, there are several preventative measures we can take in order to protect our bodies from bugs.
- Wear loose clothing: Bugs can’t fly thought your clothing obviously but they can bite through it if it’s tight enough to your body. I used to sleep in leggings but would wake up covered in bites anyway. The lesson here is to cover your body as much as possible (long pants / socks / long-sleeve shirts) so long that you can handle it with the weather.
- Cover your head and neck: Bugs will find any open skin to bite you. Protect your head with a hat and your neck with a light scarf or bandana.
- Tuck in your clothing: Whenever possible, tuck your shirt into your pants and tuck your pants into your socks. This prevents bugs from flying inside your clothes.
- Use light-colored clothing: We’ll discuss this in greater detail, but keep in mind that mosquitos are attracted to dark and bright colors.
- Don’t go out during dusk and dawn: Mosquitos are more active during these times. If at all possible, avoid going out and protect your house by keeping your windows and doors closed unless you have fine mesh screens.
- Avoid physical exertion: Depending on your diet, bugs can become very attracted to your sweat. The more you sweat, the more bugs you will attract, especially when it’s already hot and humid.
- Don’t use perfume or unnatural smells: Use unscented lotion, deodorant, body soap, laundry soap, and shampoo (or use tea tree shampoo). If people like the way you smell, chances are bugs will too!
- Stand in front of a fan or hang out in a breezy spot: Mosquitos are weak fliers so they won’t approach you if there’s wind blowing on them. Also, any form of a breeze will disperse the carbon dioxide you exhale, which is one of the main things that draw mosquitos to you in the first place.
- Don’t shave: Unleash your inner caveman/ cavewoman! If you’re in the woods especially, no one is going to pay attention to how hairy you are, and most bugs prefer hairless areas.
- Be prepared: Make sure to always keep repellent on hand. In Central America, I had to resort to buying OFF, which is made with Deet, and one small bottle cost me $8 US Dollars! Not only is it an expensive choice to be unprepared, but also Deet is a really harsh chemical no one should be putting in their body. Also, a mosquito net might be a great investment. Applying and re-applying repellent during the night will become a hassle.
What attracts mosquitoes and other bugs?
We will dive deeper into this topic but the better question here might be, “what are bugs attracted to?” Our diet, perfume choice, and lifestyle might be the reason why they’re so drawn to us. Here are a few facts:
- Mosquitos breed in standing water. If you have a pond in your property, add a splash of bleach. This should kill most of the larvae within the first few days. If you want a more natural option, put a few fish in your water because they will feed on the larvae. Finally, you can add a pump that keeps the water in motion and mosquitos will no longer be able to breed there.
- Ticks and mosquitos like to live in shrubs and tall grassy areas. Maintain your property by keeping your grass and bushes short.
- Mosquitos are attracted to dark and bright colors. Opt for white, tan, or light clothing!
- Lights, lights, lights! Have you noticed at nighttime how swarms of bugs are huddled around lights? Consider switching your normal lights for LED bulbs instead. LED lights don’t emit wavelengths in the UV spectrum, therefore they don’t attract bugs.
In order to fight bugs off, we must make our bodies so unappetizing that they will not find us attractive in the least.
Foods that repel bugs
- Garlic: Make sure you eat garlic every day, at least a week or two prior to going into bug-infested areas. It works well in repelling mosquitos, ticks, fleas, and most humans.
- Onions: Just like garlic, onions will make your body sweat an unattractive smell to bugs.
- Vitamin B1 / Vitamin B Complex: There is no scientific evidence that proves this is helpful in preventing mosquito bites but a lot of people swear by its positive effects. If not for repelling purposes though, Vitamin B1 will help to reduce the itchiness of the bite.
- Eat less processed foods and salty snacks. Instead eat natural foods, such as fresh vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
- Eat less simple sugars. Bugs love sweet blood. Instead of processed sugars, eat fruit.
- Eat less high potassium fruits and veggies. High levels of potassium increase the amount of lactic acid your body sweats off, which attracts mosquitos. Opt for low potassium intake.
- Drink a shot of apple cider vinegar every day. The best way to drink this is by mixing 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with 1 tablespoon of honey in 8 oz of hot water. Drinking apple cider vinegar without diluting is not recommended. Mosquitos, or any bug for that matter, won’t come near you if you smell like vinegar.
Spices, herbs, and roots that repel bugs
This list doesn’t provide you with all the options out there, but these are some of the most popular ones.
- Bay Leaves
- Goldenseal Root: The Native Americans would mix this with animal fat and use it as a repellent.
- Lemon Balm
- Yarrow: There are many people out there that confirm Yarrow as a more effective repellent than DEET, but preparing a repellant with yarrow takes approximately 4 to 6 weeks. If you have the time to do this, it is one of the best options out there. The plant itself can be rubbed directly on the skin but it might not be as strong and may need constant re-application. It can also be planted in your garden and it’s commonly found in the wild.
Plants that repel bugs
Every corner of the world has insect-repelling plants native to their region that might not be mentioned here. Check which plants inhabit your area. These are a selection of the most well-known repellant plants throughout the world:
- Catnip: can be applied directly to the skin. Another option is to dry the plant and later infuse it in olive oil, then apply it to the skin. It is said to be more effective than DEET.
- Cedar Tree: One of the most effective ways to repel insects is with cedar oil (topically applied) or wood (in a smudge fire).
- Citronella: You can rub the leaves between your hands and use the oil to cover your body. Also, if you grow it around your garden it will deter bugs from coming into your yard.
- Lemon balm: The leaves can be crushed and rubbed directly on the skin.
- Lemongrass: It contains a high concentration of citronella oil and it repels mosquitos. Plant it near your pond or around your garden.
- Lemon Thyme
- Mint, including spearmint, peppermint, and wintergreen. Rub the leaves between your hands until oil is released. Apply that oil to your body.
- Mulberry bushes
- Pennyroyal: This plant has effective insect repelling properties, both in its plant and oil form, however, it should never be used by pregnant women as there is some evidence that it can cause miscarriages/ abortions. Please do your own thorough research, or consult a doctor, BEFORE choosing to use this.
- Rosemary: If you have a bonfire or BBQ, add some rosemary to repel mosquitoes.
Essential oils that repel bugs naturally
Essential oils are often used in natural bug repellent sprays and creams. Anytime you use essential oils, make sure to mix them with a carrier oil (jojoba, coconut, soybean or olive oil should work well). Never apply essential oils directly to your skin because it can cause irritation and burn the skin. If you don’t have anything to mix it with, consider adding a few drops of the oil to a piece of cloth instead and wearing the cloth over your neck.
The most popular essential oils used in bug repellents are the following:
- Anise Essential Oil
- Basil Essential Oil
- Bergamot Essential Oil
- Birch Oil
- Catnip Essential Oil
- Castor Oil
- Cedar Essential Oil
- Cinnamon Leaf Essential Oil
- Citronella Essential Oil
- Clove Essential Oil
- Eucalyptus Essential Oil
- Geranium Essential Oil
- Lavender Essential Oil
- Lemon Eucalyptus Essential Oil: It is known to be one of the best and most-recommended essential oils for repelling insects.
- Lemongrass Essential Oil
- Neem Oil
- Patchouli Essential Oil
- Peppermint Essential Oil
- Pine Essential Oil
- Rosemary Essential Oil
- Soybean Oil: While this is not an essential oil, there is evidence that this may prolong the effects of the essential oil it is mixed with. It can also be used on its own.
- Tea Tree Essential Oil
- Vanillin: It may enhance the effect of citronella oil.
Colors that attract and repel bugs
While there is no proven scientific research that color has any effect on bugs, it is widely believed that insects seem to prefer some colors over others, especially in clothing. The downside is that while one color might repel a certain type of insect, it might attract another. In any case, this unproven theory could be worth a try!
The majority of the online world seems to agree that insects are generally attracted to dark and bright colors such as black, navy blue, brown, yellow and red.
They are repelled by light, neutral, earthy and pastel colors such as green, beige, and white. Plus, it’s easier to find ticks in light-colored clothing.
How do Amazon tribes and Native Americans deal with mosquitoes and other insects?
The simple answer: they don’t get bothered. They have lived with insects their entire lives, so they’re used to mosquitoes and use their environment to protect themselves from pesky insects. It’s part of life to get bit, but they probably don’t get bitten as often as foreigners do. One main reason is that their diet is not based on processed foods. Whatever we eat is released (in part) through our sweat. We have a lower chance of getting bit if our diet releases unpleasant odors to insects (garlic, onions, apple cider vinegar, to re-name a few).
Another way the natives adapted to their bug-filled environment was by keeping the mentality that they were at the top of the food chain. Oftentimes they ate the bugs, and other times, they used nature to repel them. Wild plants have long been used as natural insect repellents. The Native Americans used to cover themselves in thick layers of mud to prevent being bitten, while some Amazon Tribes covered themselves in ants and rubbed them throughout their body- the strong smell of the dead ants was enough to repel other insects.
Wilderness repellants in the worst possible scenarios
You may find yourself hiking in the woods at some point with no repellant. Then what? If you’re anything like me, shooing them away with branches will not work (great arm workout though!) Here are a few practical tips to keep in mind when all other resources are not an option.
- Cover yourself in a thick layer of mud. While this is potentially a messy solution, mosquitos won’t be able to bite through the mud, especially once it has dried. Also, the natural smells your body gives off will be masked by the mud you’re covered in.
- Light a smudge fire. Before you consider this option, make sure you’re in an area that is safe to build a bonfire. If so, use old softwood, moist wood that creates a lot of smoke, such as cedar, pine, and wood that has been eaten by termites. Bugs hate smoke and if you reek of smoke, they’ll hate you too.
- Find natural repellant plants in the wild. Wild Bergamot, Cedar, Mugwort, Nodding Onion, Sagebrush, Snowbrush, Sweet Fern, Pineapple Weed, Vanilla Leaf, Wormwood, and Yarrow are a few of the wild plants known to repel mosquitos. These plants can be rubbed directly on your skin, however, the repelling effect will only last about an hour and you will need to re-apply often.
6 Natural insect repellent recipes
There are thousands of recipes out there, all claiming to work wonders. I don’t dispute them but these are a handful of my personal favorites:
- Spray One: In a spray bottle, mix together 15 drops of citronella essential oil, 10 drops of lemon eucalyptus essential oil. Add 2 cups of rubbing alcohol. Shake well and spray on! If you spray some on your face, make sure it doesn’t get into your eyes.
- Spray Two: In a spray bottle, mix 25 drops of lemon eucalyptus oil, 5 drops cinnamon leaf oil, 5 drops peppermint oil, 2 oz castor oil, and 4 oz witch hazel. Shake together and spray!
- Spray Three: In a spray bottle, mix 1 cup of water with 1 teaspoon or 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract (it’s your choice how strong your want it). Spray onto skin and around door and window frames. You can add some essential oils to this recipe too.
- Spray Four: In a spray bottle, mix 4 oz apple cider vinegar with 4 oz water, 15 drops of peppermint essential oil, tea tree oil, or eucalyptus essential oil, and 15 drops of lemon, lemongrass or citronella oil. Spray this mixture on exposed skin, in your plants, and even to treat and soothe bites.
- Spray Five: In a spray bottle, mix 15 drops citronella oil and 10 drops vanillin with 4 oz of witch hazel. Rub or spray on exposed skin.
- Lavender Lotion: Mix 40 drops of lavender essential oil with three tablespoons coconut oil, unscented lotion or sunscreen (for added sun protection). Rub on any exposed skin.
Non-natural mosquito repellents that work
- Unscented dryer sheets: They can be rubbed directly on your clothes and put in the vents of your home.
- Sulfur is known to repel bugs.
- DEET: DEET is a toxic chemical compound that is popular for repelling bugs but is found to be very damaging to the body. It is not recommended that DEET be applied to children, especially at a percentage of over 10%. Use this as your last resort, but if you must, it’s preferred that you spray it on your clothing rather than your skin. Use a repellent that has no more than 25% DEET! (Beware, DEET has been shown to deteriorate some clothing fabrics, so do your research and use with caution.)
- Picardin: Another chemical repellent that is said to be more effective than DEET.
- Permethrin: Treat your clothes with this chemical and bugs will be killed upon contact. If your clothes are treated properly, this chemical can remain effective for up to 70 washes. However, this product is extremely toxic to people and pets (especially cats).
- Thermo Cells, Lamps and Lanterns
- Avon Skin So Soft: I heard a lot of positive reviews on this, though I have not tried it myself.
- Listerine Mouthwash: Put it in a spray bottle and spray around your garden plants and body. This can also give your bug bites the relief they need.
- Mosquito Coils: This is another product to be used with caution. The chemicals used in coils are toxic and inhaling the smoke is hazardous to your health.
- Wristbands: These are a hit and miss. You should buy them from well-known and recommended brands only. Since the bracelet only covers a small surface area, they'll protect your wrists. The ones I tried in the past were too small to fit around my ankles and I got bit all over my legs.
- Bug Zappers: As the name suggests, these will zap bugs within a certain range.
- Build a bat or birdhouse. Maintaining a bat and/or bird population in your yard can take care of your mosquito problem, or greatly reduce it. (Bats eat about 1,000 mosquitos per hour, so keeping them around will be a benefit to you.)
Insect repellents for dogs and cats
- Citronella Essential Oil: Rub the oil on a piece of cloth, and then rub the cloth gently on the hair of your pets. Never rub essential oils directly on their skin (just the hair)!!
- Feeding your dog garlic once in a while will repel fleas, ticks, and mosquitos. It might work for cats too.
- Wash your dog with tea tree shampoo. I do this with my dog and I have yet to see a flea land on him. It would be the first in his 13 years of life.
- Pennyroyal: It is known to be a powerful deterrent for ticks and fleas, but please consult your veterinary doctor BEFORE using this on your pets. Just like in humans, this may have some adverse effects.
- WARNING AGAINST PERMETHRIN: This product is used for treating clothing to help repel insects but do not get it near your pets…it's extremely toxic and can become lethal to your furry family members (especially for cats).
How to heal from insect bites
Even if taking preventative and sometimes extreme measures, a determined bug might still find a way to bite you. The following natural treatments are recommended for their anti-inflammatory and soothing properties for the skin. Unless otherwise noted, apply these options directly to the bite.
- Aloe Vera: Apply to the bite directly to stop itching immediately and reduce swelling.
- Baking Soda: Mixed 4 oz of water with 1 teaspoon of baking soda. Using a towel or cotton ball, apply the mixture directly to the bite.
- Raw Organic Honey
- Lavender Essential Oil
- Peppermint Essential Oil
- Lemon: Apply the juice to the bite.
- Neem Oil
- Tea Tree Oil
- Salt: Add a few drops of water to create a paste and dab directly to your bites.
- Ice or Cooling pad: This will relieve the inflammation and reduce swelling.
- Liquid soap: Apply a dab of soap to the bite and let it dry.
- Calamine lotion: Apply this with a cotton ball
- Topical Creams: Anti-histamine, Yydrocortisone, or Benadryl: Apply the cream directly to the bite.
- Listerine Mouthwash
- Toothpaste (without fluoride and not the gel kind): Dab some directly to the bite and let it dry. Remove a few hours later with cool water. Also is known to help bee stings.
- Baby Powder: Use this to stop itching immediately. It is also known for helping to heal wounds and rashes. This is the best option for children, but consult a pediatrician for their advice.
- Don’t scratch your bug bites: It’s easier said than done, I know! Avoid itching or picking at your bites, especially if your hands are dirty. If left undisturbed, you will heal much quicker and the period of itchiness will be cut short. Scratching a bite can eventually cause an infection and make things dramatically worse. If your bites don’t show signs of improvement though, it’s probably best to seek advice from a doctor.
Everybody's body chemistry is different so what works for one person may not work for another. In my opinion, I would not use a chemical agent with known harmful side effects. I prefer to use plants and natural sources over anything else...but that’s just me.
Based on all the information you just read, you can use your best judgment and find something that works best for you. If you’re into the natural approach too, I invite you to try your own recipes until you find the blend that works best for you.
Did I miss anything? Do you have a favorite insect repellent recipe to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in February 2018 and has since been improved and updated.
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