Plus, the best tips and tricks to keep skeeters away naturally.

Veronica Meewes
August 20, 2020
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Credit: Getty / LordHenriVoton

As if the coronavirus wasn't enough to keep us on our toes, West Nile virus has also been on the rise this summer. Mosquitoes testing positive for the virus, which causes flu-like symptoms similar to the coronavirus, have been detected across the country, so it is highly advised you protect yourself with a repellent whenever you are outside. If you're wary of using bug repellent containing harsh chemicals like DEET, now might be the perfect time to consider crafting your own homemade mosquito repellent.

I know what you're thinking—why risk making a bug spray that doesn't work when the stakes are even higher right now? There are actually several natural ingredients that are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency as insect repellents. And when you mix your own spray at home, you can make it as concentrated as you see fit, and add other essential oils according to your olfactory preferences. Blending up big batches of repellent will also allow you to apply the solution liberally without breaking the bank—and liberally you should apply!

"No matter if you make the repellent yourself or buy a natural bug spray in a store, you need to remember to reapply the repellent frequently for it to keep working, as in most cases natural repellents will only be efficient at repelling bugs for an hour or two," says Kristiana Kripena of InsectCop, an insect- and pest-control advice blog. "This is also why a lot of people think that natural bug spray doesn't work. They simply forget to reapply it and expect it to keep repelling insects for hours on end."

There are certainly many natural bug sprays on the market, all made with a variety of different essential oils that purport to repel mosquitoes. A 2019 report in the Journal of Medical Entomology found five essential oils provided some protection by masking human odor: spearmint, garlic, lemongrass, cinnamon and peppermint. In her book Naturally Bug-Free, herbalist Stephanie Tourles shares repellent recipes using lavender, geranium and eucalyptus. In order to work outside of a lab setting, essential oils must always be blended with a carrier oil (like coconut, olive or sesame) so they are released into the air more slowly and don't irritate your skin.

"With the increasing popularity of essential oils, it is critical that people understand there is a difference between lemon-eucalyptus oil, which is an essential oil, and oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is an EPA-approved active ingredient for mosquito repellent," stresses Nancy Troyano, board-certified entomologist and director of operations training and education for Ehrlich Pest Control.

"Oil of lemon eucalyptus has been tested by the EPA and there is plenty of data to support its safety and efficacy as a repellent," says Troyano. "It has gone through the same approval methods as DEET, so if people want to go this route, they should look for repellents with oil of lemon eucalyptus as the active ingredient. It may also be listed as p-menthane-3,8-diol, or PMD on the label." (We love this one from Natrapel, $12 on Amazon)

Other EPA-registered natural repellents include catnip oil, citronella oil and 2-undecanone, a compound commonly found in clove, which is often a key ingredient in naturally derived pest control products. But when her dog suffered devastating side effects from vet-prescribed flea-and-tick medicine, Stephanie Boone began to do her own research on EPA-registered products.

"While nursing her back to health, I was shocked to learn about the chemicals in pesticides, which are actually neurotoxic poisons linked to cancer, seizures, skin issues and organ failure," says Boone, who began to formulate her own plant-based pet protection, Wondercide ($35, Amazon). "Eugenol is the most abundant ingredient in clove oil, which is well-known as being toxic to cats. Clove oil can cause liver toxicity in cats and is dangerous for all pets if they lick any off, so it's an ingredient we would never use."

Since they are considered "minimum risk pesticides," posing little to no risk to human health or the environment, the EPA does not require essential oils to be registered. And since EPA registration is such an expensive process, most producers choose not to do it. Therefore, there haven't been enough trials conducted for us to know just how effective essential oil-based products are.

When developing Wondercide, Boone conducted countless trials of her own, and found cedarwood oil to be most effective in repelling insects. She also uses lavender and lemongrass oils in her skin tonic ($17, Amazon) and geranium and citronella oils in her soap and shampoo bars ($15 for soap bar and $29 for two shampoo bars, both from Amazon).

"Natural mosquito repellents can be effective, but they are often not strong enough all by themselves, usually because those mixtures are very diluted and the active ingredients are in smaller amounts," says Alexander Crawley, senior executive and entomology consultant at Fantastic Pest Control. "But if you combine these sprays with other measures, it would be quite possible to avoid mosquito bites."

Planting aromatic plants (many of the same ones used in the essential oils mentioned above) can be another effective way of combating mosquitoes, advises Kevin Chan, Ph.D., MHA, CCRA, in-house entomologist for Mosquito Squad.

"Many mosquito-repelling plants come from the mint family, including catmint or catnip, horsemint, lemon balm, bee balm and peppermint," says Chan. "Culinary herbs, such as rosemary, basil, mint, sage, lavender, various thymes and hyssop, also have mosquito-repelling qualities."

Citronella, rosemary, marigolds and lavender are four of the best plants to plant outside your home, near doors or in window boxes to discourage mosquitoes from coming inside.

"Rubbing these plants on your skin will also repel mosquitoes for a short time, but they are most effective if you extract the oils and use them that way," adds Chan.

There are a number of different factors that attract mosquitoes, including light, body odor, lactic acid (which the body emits with exercise), carbon dioxide (from our breath), secretions and blood type (a study by the National Institutes of Health proved that mosquitoes prefer type O the best). In addition to crafting DIY blends of essential oils to cover up the scents that attract mosquitoes, there are a few other things you can do to help naturally deter the winged pests.

How to Naturally Get Rid of Mosquitoes

Strip Away Scents

"If you are going to be in an area where mosquitoes are prevalent, it's best to switch to as many unscented products as you can to avoid attraction," explains Chan. Perfume, cologne, hair products, scented fabric softeners and lotions have all been known to attract mosquitoes.

Treat Your Yard

"Mosquitoes can breed in as little as a tablespoon of water," says Troyano, so make sure there is no standing water anywhere in your yard. One of the home remedies Kripena shares on InsectCop is a recipe for yard spray created by mixing mint-flavored mouthwash, stale beer and Epsom salt. She also suggests halving limes or lemons, inserting cloves into the halves and keeping them close while you're outside. (Or, to keep things easy, you can opt for a yard spray like this one on Amazon!)

Cut the Cheese

"Lactic acid is a big draw for mosquitoes, so consider cutting down on yogurt, milk and cheese," advises Tourles in Naturally Bug-Free. "Your body naturally produces lactic acid, but when you eat dairy products, you excrete more of it, making you more desirable."

Give Fans a Chance

"Moving air is a natural enemy of mosquitoes—they are extremely weak fliers and air movement prohibits their flying and their abilities to land," says Troyano. "One or two inexpensive box or oscillating fans placed strategically can help dramatically reduce mosquitoes in localized areas." (Snag a battery-powered one on Amazon for just $32.)

Lighten Up

"Mosquitoes are highly visual creatures, and research shows that insect behavior can be influenced by color," says Chan. Studies have shown that mosquitoes are attracted to darker colors, especially blue and brown, so it's best to wear light-colored clothing with loose, long sleeves.