By: Carrie Johanningmeier,

Wellness Assitant

During the summer, I like to go to campgrounds, rivers and woods, and I don’t want insects to irritate, bite and ruin my outside activities.  Many store bought bug repellents contain ingredients that I don’t believe are the best option for daily use.  There are natural ways to keep bugs away that are much better for you and may even be more effective.

There are many essential oils known for being excellent insect repellents. Here is a list of some of the most common: Eucalyptus Citriodora or Eucalyptus Globulus, Citronella, Clove, Lemongrass, Rose Geranium, Patchouli, Rosemary, Basil, Lavender, Cinnamon, Cedarwood, Oregano, Thyme and Tea Tree.  Different essential oils work better for specific pests.  Here is a list of the ones I have found or studied to be the most effective:

Mosquitoes: Eucalyptus Citriodora or Eucalyptus Globulus, Citronella, Peppermint, Lemongrass, Rosemary, Patchouli, Cinnamon, Thyme, Basil, and Lavender.

Ticks: Rose Geranium, Thyme and Oregano

Gnats: Citronella, Eucalyptus Citriodora or Eucalyptus Globulus, Rose Geranium, Patchouli and Thyme

Flies: Citronella, Rosemary, Lavender and Peppermint

Chiggers: Tea Tree, Lavender, and Lemongrass

Fleas: Citronella, Lemongrass, Cedarwood, Lavender, Peppermint, and Tea Tree

Moths: Lemongrass, Cedarwood, Lavender, Peppermint and Oregano

Lice: Peppermint, Thyme and Tea Tree

There are several ways I use essential oils to repel insects.  If I am eating food outdoors, I use an aromatherapy burner or put a few drops of undiluted essential oils on a tissue or cotton ball near the food.  When I know I will be spending time outside, I will mix a single oil (or up to four) in a unscented lotion, coconut oil or other carrier oil, by adding 1 drop for every 5 mls used and apply topically.

Then I will spray my clothes and hair with a homemade bug repellent spray.  You can make one by using a clean spray bottle, distilled or boiled water, a carrier oil, and your essential oil(s). Most essential oils are too concentrated to be used directly on the skin, so they need to be diluted.  Also, since water and oil don’t mix, you want to add an alcohol or carrier oil so they can mix. Some carrier oils/alcohols you can use are almond oil, apricot kernel oil, grapeseed oil, glycerine, witch hazel and vodka.  Words to look for on the bottle of carrier oil which indicate quality are organic, cold-pressed and virgin.

I use a 4 ounce stainless steel or a dark glass spray bottle, fill it with 2 ounces of distilled or boiled water. Then I add an ounce of witch hazel or vodka, and 40-70 drops of my essential oils. I try to keep the total percent of essential oils under 10% for safety. If I have it on hand, I like to add a teaspoon of jojoba oil for its moisturizing properties.  You don’t want to completely fill the bottle completely full since you want room to shake each time it’s used. Spray on exposed skin or clothing, avoiding eyes and mucous membranes. You may need to reapply, depending on how much time you spend outside and how many pests you have in your vicinity.  I find myself reapplying every 2-4 hours.

Some sample recipes:

30 drops Citronella

20 drops Peppermint

15 drops Tea Tree

25 drops Rose Geranium

15 drops Peppermint

10 drops Rosemary

40 drops Rose Geranium

50 drops Eucalyptus Citriodora


Some citrus oils, like lemon and lemongrass, have strong bug repellent properties, but they are also phototoxic. This means that the sun could damage or burn easily if those oils are applied to the skin and then exposed to any source of ultraviolet (UV) light.  It is advised to use caution when adding citrus oils to your sprays or balms.  If you decide to use citrus oils, keep your skin completely covered to avoid UV exposure.

Lavender is another great repellent and great if you do get a bite, however, don’t use if you’re trying to deter bees since bees collect pollen from lavender flowers.

Young children, women who are pregnant or breast feeding, people taking medication, people using homeopathy or people with certain addictions, should be aware that there are certain essential oils that should not be applied to the body. These people should consult a healthcare practitioner before using.  When learning to use essential oils, safety is very important.  Always do a skin test before using an essential oil. Use vegetable or olive oil to wipe it off if sensitivity, reaction occurs. Do not use water. When possible, use standard biting insect precautions like wearing socks and avoiding the times when insects are more active.

If you don’t find yourself enthusiastic about making your own, no worries. We sell all-natural bug repellents at the Oneota Co-op.  Here are some I have tried and found to be effective:

Bug Band Insect Repellant Lotion perfect for when you need more heavy-duty protection.  By spraying it directly on clothing or skin, the Geraniol vapors form a protective barrier to deter blood-sucking insects from biting. It’s my favorite to use while out mushroom hunting. I spray it around my ankles, wrist or neck where insects tend to invade. Along with Geraniol, it also uses soybean oil, rosemary, mint and geranium oil. These work well for deterring mosquitoes, ticks, fleas gnats, no-see-ums and flies.

Badger Anti-Bug Spray or Balm naturally repels mosquitoes and insects with the pleasant aroma of Citronella, Cedar, Lemongrass, Rosemary, Peppermint, and Wintergreen essential oils combined with soybean and castor oil.  It’s 100% Natural and Certified Organic.

Mom’s Bite Blocker Xtreme Sportsman Insect Repellent formula provides protection from bites for up to eight hours against mosquitoes, black flies and more than two hours for ticks.  I like to use this one on the river since it is a waterproof formulation that uses soybean oil, geranium oil, castor oil, and wintergreen. It is tough enough for extreme environments and safe for the entire family.

No matter how much we try to protect ourselves we can still get bitten. Here are some natural remedies to stop the itch or pain.

-Apply Lavender or Tea Tree essential oil directly to the bite (lavender and tea tree are the only oils that can be applied to the skin, all others need to be diluted).

-Apply Apple Cider Vinegar to the bite.

-Create a paste of water and baking soda and apply to bite.

-A slice of onion has been known to immediately remove pain when applied to insect bites.

-You can apply plantain leaf. It grows everywhere, but make sure you Google image it, so you know you’re harvesting the right plant. Dust it off, make sure that no pesticides or chemical fertilizers have been applied, and chew it up and place it on the sting or bite.  The enzymes in your saliva help to break down the plant membranes, releasing the pain-relieving and inflammation constituents.

-I have applied mud when I have been unprepared and it helps take the itch away. Make sure that no pesticides or chemical fertilizers have been applied.

You will need to experiment with oils to see which ones work the best for you. Don’t let the fear of bugs (or repellents) get in the way of your love of nature. By learning new, healthier ways to avoid insects, you can be outside as much as you want.