Natural Mosquito Repellents

Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on September 15, 2020

Choosing a Mosquito Repellent

Mosquitoes are attracted to people thanks to things like strong smells (such as scented soaps, food, or skin odor), dark or bold-colored clothing, and warm body temperature.

It’s important to do what you can to keep them away, not only because the bites are itchy and annoying, but also because they can sometimes carry serious diseases, like West Nile, Zika, or malaria.  

A mosquito repellent doesn't actually kill mosquitoes. Repellents work by making people less attractive to mosquitoes, so they're less likely to bite you.

When deciding what type of mosquito repellent to use, you should consider:

  • How long you will be outside
  • How many mosquitoes are in your area
  • Risk of mosquito-transmitted diseases where you live
  • What you are putting on your skin

Many conventional mosquito repellents have the chemicals DEET or picaridin as active ingredients. But there are more natural mosquito repellents available that may also be effective.

If you live in an area where mosquitoes are more a mild nuisance, plant-based mosquito repellents may be a good alternative to conventional mosquito repellents.

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But if you live in an area that is heavy with mosquitoes or you are prone to bites, repellents containing higher concentrations (23.8%) of DEET or picaridin offer the best protection.

Although it may be unsettling to apply chemical repellents to your skin, it may be better than the alternative -- being bitten by potentially disease-carrying bugs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says mosquito repellents that contain DEET or picaridin are safe for adults and children over the age of 2 months, when used correctly.

But there are other options that are deemed "natural" because they are derived from natural materials such as plants.

What Are the Best Natural Mosquito Repellents?

Some natural repellents you might want to consider include:

Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE). This is a natural, plant-based oil. It works as well at preventing mosquito bites as products that contain lower concentrations (6.65%) of DEET. PMD is a version of oil of lemon eucalyptus that is produced in a lab. Repellents containing OLE or PMD may provide up to 2 hours of protection.

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If you decide to try OLE, make sure you buy the insect repellent version and not "pure" oil of lemon eucalyptus (essential oil). They aren't the same. The safety and effectiveness of the essential oil as an insect repellent is not clear. Also, OLE should not be used on children under age 3.

Geraniol (found in citronella, lemongrass, and rose oil). Studies have shown that repellents containing this natural chemical can help keep mosquitoes at bay for a short while, but they don’t work as long or as well as other types of repellents.

Catnip oil. This insect repellent is derived from the nepeta cataria plant. It may offer mosquito protection for 7 hours, according to the EPA.

Cinnamon oil. This has been shown to help make you a bit less attractive to mosquitoes for up to an hour and a half, which is longer than many other natural oil repellants.

IR3535. This is also known as Merck 3535. It is an active ingredient in some insect repellents.

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IR3535 was used for years in Europe before being registered by the EPA. It may offer up to 2 hours of mosquito protection. IR3535 is considered "natural" because it is structurally related to a naturally occurring chemical.

2-undecanone. This is derived from the tomato plant. It may offer 4½ hours of protection from mosquitoes. It can be found in some insect repellents.

Nootkatone. This oil is made from grapefruit skin and cedar trees has been approved by the EPA as an ingredient in insecticides. It has been found to repel and kill many biting insects, including mosquitoes. Studies show it can give several hours of protection.

Many other natural ingredients are currently being studied as mosquito repellent. These include:

  • Fennel
  • Thyme
  • Clove oil
  • Celery extract
  • Neem oil

More studies are needed to verify their safety and efficacy.

Garlic and vitamin B1 taken by mouth won’t protect against mosquitoes, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Other Alternatives to Repel Mosquitoes

Mosquito repellent is one way to protect against mosquito bites. But there are other steps you can take to help keep the bugs away.

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Cover up. Wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants, socks, closed-toe shoes, and a hat when you go outside. Tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks to prevent mosquitoes from sneaking under your clothes.

When it's 90 degrees outside, this may be the last thing you want to do. But it's one way to help prevent mosquito bites without using chemical mosquito repellent.

Use fans. If the air is moving, mosquitoes will have a hard time landing on you. When you are sitting on the porch, turn on a fan.

Get rid of standing water. Mosquitoes breed in standing water. Eliminate places in your yard where water can collect, such as:

  • Open buckets
  • Plastic covers
  • Trash can lids
  • Unplanted flower pots

Be sure to change the water in bird baths weekly. Keep your pool water circulating and treated.

Stay inside at dusk and dawn: Mosquitoes are most active in the evening when the sun sets and early morning when the sun rises. You can still be bitten during the day. But there are usually fewer mosquitoes buzzing around at that time.

Safety Tips for Using Mosquito Repellents

When using an insect repellent, follow these safety tips from the CDC:

  • Don't use products that combine DEET and a sunscreen, because insect repellent usually doesn't need to be applied as often as sunscreen.
  • When using sunscreen and DEET at the same time, apply sunscreen first and then DEET.
  • Don't apply insect repellent to children's hands or allow young children to apply themselves.
  • Never apply repellent over skin wounds, cuts, or otherwise irritated skin areas.
  • Use and reapply insect repellent according to the instructions on the product's label.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "Protection against Mosquitoes, Ticks, and Other Insects and Arthropods;" "Insect Repellent Use and Safety;" and "Updated Information Regarding Insect Repellents."

Environmental Protection Agency: "Using Insect Repellent Safely;" "Insect Repellents: Use and Effectiveness;" and "Other Preventive Actions to Avoid Getting Bitten."

Flyrepellent.org: "Homemade Mosquito Repellent."

American Academy of Pediatrics: "Insect Repellents."

University of Florida: "Insect Repellents."

Fradin, M. and Day, J. New England Journal of Medicine, July 2002.

Intermountain Healthcare: “What Attracts Mosquitoes To Certain People?”

World Health Organization: “Mosquito-borne Diseases.”

Europe PMC: “Repellent activity of herbal essential oils against (Linn.) and (Say.).”

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