I think summer is by far the best season of the year. With warm weather, sunshine, backyard barbecues, and beach vacations, what’s not to love? To me, nothing—except maybe the bugs. Thanks to the heat and humidity, mosquitoes, gnats, and those dreaded horseflies that come out in droves. And most of us resort to coating ourselves in chemical-laden bug sprays to get rid of them. But this summer, I’m determined to get protection naturally—with bug-repelling plants and essential oils.
Here are 13 essential oils that can help keep the bugs at bay so you can enjoy your time in the great outdoors.
Essential oils distilled from members of the Lamiaceae (mint family that includes most culinary herbs), Poaceae (aromatic grasses), and Pinaceae (pine and cedar family) are commonly used as insect repellents throughout the globe (source and table).
Many commercial repellents contain a number of plant essential oils either for fragrance or as repellents, including peppermint, lemongrass, geraniol, pine oil, pennyroyal, cedar oil, thyme oil, and patchouli. The most effective of these include thyme and clove oils, alone or in combinations of clove and thyme or clove and geranium. In a study looking at the length of action of these essential oils, they were found to repel mosquitoes for up to two and a half hours, depending on the combination and concentration used (source).
Essential Oils That Repel Bugs Naturally
1. Basil and Kaffir Lime
In an earlier 2001 study from Thailand (where the mosquitoes can be downright dreadful), mosquitoes in cage conditions were repelled by turmeric, citronella grass, and hairy basil oils. This effect was extended by the addition of 5% vanillin (an extract of the vanilla bean) for up to eight hours. And kaffir lime oil by itself worked for up to three hours.
A study from 2014, looking at dust mite control with different formulations of basil oil, showed that spray formulations of this oil work pretty well, achieving 97–100% effectiveness in getting rid of those pesky bugs known for causing allergy symptoms in the home.
The herb we refer to as catnip, Nepeta cataria, comes from a common plant that frequently grows as a weed in many parts of the United States. One study found that catnip essential oil kept mosquitoes away as well as or better than DEET. The authors concluded that a combination of both would have definite advantages in many settings.
A 2014 study demonstrated that the essential oil had very high mosquito repellency for periods of at least two hours.
Obtained from the leaves and stems of lemongrass, citronella has been registered as a plant-based insect repellent in the U.S. since 1948. Whereas most essential oils repel insects with their scent, citronella works by masking other scents that are attractive to bugs, making it difficult for them to locate their targets.
There’s no mistaking citronella’s smell since it’s commonly used in bug repellant formulas. It is considered to be effective at deterring mosquitoes, fleas, and more, according to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils.
When first applied topically or sprayed, citronella, which contains citronellal, citronellol, geraniol, citral, α pinene, and limonene, was shown decades ago to be as effective dose-for-dose as DEET (source). But the oils rapidly evaporate, causing loss of efficacy and leaving the user unprotected. However, a more recent study reviewing the effectiveness of quite a few different repellants on the market, including citronella, revealed that the addition of that trusty vanillin to both plant-based and DEET repellents increased the protection time by about two hours (source).
Citronella candles are readily available in most stores, especially in the spring and summer seasons, and are a popular option for individuals who want to spend time outdoors without the nuisance of pesky insects. For an even more effective approach, try citronella in diffusers, which was shown in one study to have brought the repellency rate up to 68% indoors (from 14% for the candles).
A paper from 2013 looked at using the volunteer’s forearm to demonstrate that clove oil combined with coconut oil protected for 76–96 minutes, better than both citronella and lemongrass oils. Some reports have raised concerns that methyl eugenol, one of the trace components of clove oil, could be a carcinogen. It is generally regarded as safe by the FDA, but the U.S. National Library of Medicine reported some side effects, including skin irritation and headache.
In another look at efficacy, 38 essential oils were tested on a volunteer’s forearm, and it was noted that clove oil delivered 2–4 hours of repellency against all three species of mosquito. This was the longest duration of all the oils tested.
But again, it was most effective when applied to the skin undiluted, which for clove and many other oils, can cause skin irritation.
Geraniol, the active ingredient in geranium oil, has been proven effective in repelling a wide variety of insects, including mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches, ants, fleas, gnats, and ticks. When its effectiveness was studied in the form of a candle or a diffuser, the latter won out by far for both indoors and outdoors (source). It even beat citronella. Mix a few drops with water into your diffuser, and place it in areas where bugs tend to hang out.
You might even plant a few of these bug-repelling plants around the patio. Look for citrosa geraniums, which have a strong lemony scent that bugs dislike.
You can also use the essential oil to make your own topical bug repellant. Simply mix 8–10 drops of the essential oil of geranium with a tablespoon of carrier oil and apply it to exposed areas of the skin, avoiding the eyes, mouth, and nose. Try a small test section first, to make sure you will not develop any skin irritation before applying to larger areas.
With its deep, rose-like aroma, geranium is also wonderful for irritated skin. So, even if you forget to use bug repellent to keep insects at bay, consider using geranium to help soothe those nasty bug bites after they happen!
An oil that is not just limited to calming nerves and promoting restful sleep, lavender oil can be used in drawers to repel moths or sprayed from an atomizer or left in a saucer to help keep away ants and insects (source).
Lavender is also effective at preventing bug bites, including those from the season’s troublesome mosquitoes (source). It can make a wonderful addition to DIY bug repellent recipes. Not only will you be able to utilize all of its natural benefits, but it will smell amazing as well!
Diffuse lavender oil to keep bugs away from your home or wear it directly on the skin to keep flying insects away. It is another essential oil that does double-duty with insect issues—it helps deter certain pests and can also help relieve itching and irritation associated with bug bites.
7. Lemon Eucalyptus
Lemon eucalyptus is composed of 85% citronellal. The oil of lemon eucalyptus (which is actually a different product than the essential oil) contains another powerful repellent ingredient, PMD (p-menthane-3,8-diol), that is a highly effective and long-acting mosquito repellent, similar to DEET (source). And PMD exhibited better protection than DEET against the ticks that carry Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, by keeping them from attaching and feasting (source).
Widely considered to be safe, PMD is the only plant-based repellent the CDC has approved for public use (source). However, it is important to note that it has been shown to cause eye irritation, and should not be used in children under age 3.
Lemongrass oil is known for its citrusy scent and has been used for stomach issues, rheumatoid arthritis, and many other conditions due to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory effects (source). Applied topically, a 1% dilution in a spray and 15% in a cream was comparable to that of a commercial mosquito repellent (source).
This oil has been found to be safe for human and animal use, as seen in this study from Thailand, where it was shown to have excellent repellent activity against the mosquitoes that carry yellow fever, Zika, and West Nile viruses.
Neem oil has long been used as a natural pesticide for plants, but most people don’t realize that it can double as a non-toxic bug repellent for people, too. While pretty much all parts of the neem tree are used medicinally, the essential oil is extracted from the fruit and seeds of the tree, according to The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy.
Neem derivatives neutralize nearly 500 pests worldwide, including insects, mites, ticks, and nematodes (source). As a natural insecticide and pesticide, it can protect against mosquitoes and various other biting insects when combined with a carrier oil and applied to the skin.
In a study from India, where the neem tree is native, the repellent action of neem oil was evaluated against different mosquito species. The 2% neem oil mixed in coconut oil provided 96-100% protection from anophelines, which is the species that carries the most dangerous type of malaria. The volunteers received protection from bites for 12 hours. The researchers concluded that neem oil is safe as a topical application and can be used as a personal protection measure against mosquito bites.
Later studies have not found the same effectiveness or duration of action (source), however, and it is still controversial as to whether neem, alone, provides sufficient protection.
The EPA has not approved neem for use as a topical insect repellent. Neem seeds should not be eaten as they carry a poison that can be dangerous in large doses (source). The oil is produced from the seeds, so it has the potential to be toxic and should not be consumed.
It has a low toxicity level when applied topically but can cause skin irritation, such as dermatitis, when used undiluted (source). Aromatherapy author Valerie Ann Worwood says neem should be avoided for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or who have sensitive skin.
Peppermint oil, with its strong scent and tingly sensation, is great for repelling lots of different types of bugs. An active ingredient in peppermint (p- Menthane-3, 8-diol) has been registered with the EPA as a mosquito repellent since 2000 (source).
For flying insects, you can make a peppermint bug spray by combining 4–5 drops of peppermint oil with ¼ cup water in a spray bottle. Give it a good shake and spritz on exposed skin before spending time outdoors. For the creepy-crawly variety, put a few drops of peppermint oil on a cotton ball and place in areas where you find spiders, ants, and ticks.
Remember, due to its high menthol content, peppermint should not be used on or around the faces of infants or young children.
11. Tea Tree
We all know that tea tree oil is a natural antibiotic and a green cleaning powerhouse, but it is also capable of suppressing the growth of parasites such as fleas, leeches, lice, and ticks. Diffuse it around the house or dilute it in a carrier oil and apply directly to the skin to keep the critters away.
It’s also a stellar option to consider when dealing with the aftermath of bug bites. It’s commonly used in DIY bug bite soother recipes (usually combined with lavender), due to its abilities to help relieve and soothe itchy, irritated skin. And as a bonus—because of its effective, yet gentle properties, it can be used around most individuals.
Thyme contains five insect-fighting substances called monoterpenes (carvacrol, p-cymene, linalool, alpha-terpinene, and thymol), and when they are applied to the skin, they all help deter mosquitoes (source). In one study, all of them were effective. A couple of them even showed a greater capacity to fight the common house mosquito than DEET (source).
Thyme is a highly effective insecticide against houseflies, too (source).
Use 1 part of the essential oil mixed with 10 parts witch hazel to make a natural, homemade insect repellent spray.
When diffused into the air, vetiver oil acts as a natural mosquito deterrent in the house (source). It is also known to have many cosmetic uses (source), and as an added bonus, it helps promote a calm, relaxed environment.
It’s also excellent for anchoring essential oil blends due to its deep, grounding aroma. So, if you’re looking for an essential oil to balance out your DIY bug repellent blend, consider adding vetiver to the mix. I promise you won’t be disappointed!
Although it can be used around most individuals, keep in mind that vetiver can have sedative-like effects, and only a little is needed to finish off a blend.
Do you use essential oils to keep the bugs away? If so, which oils are your favorites to use?
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Gina Jansheski, a licensed, board-certified pediatrician who has been practicing for more than 20 years. Learn more about Hello Glow’s medical review board here. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.910