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What to Know About Natural Tick Repellents

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 23, 2021

Though ticks are often thought of as insects, they are actually spider-like arachnids. They are only a few millimeters in diameter with eight legs and a round body. They survive the winter by hiding underground and coming out in warmer weather. They're usually active from March through November in places with vegetation — forests, meadows, parks, and gardens. Ticks attach to your clothing or skin when you brush past them in vegetation. 

Many tick bites cause a small amount of discomfort but are harmless. However, tick bites can transmit serious diseases including:

In addition to staying away from areas where ticks may live, there are many options for tick repellents that you can apply to your skin or clothing and gear. Many popular insect repellents contain chemicals like DEET. Some people prefer to use natural tick repellents.

What Are Natural Tick Repellents?

Natural tick repellents use natural ingredients to repel ticks. They don’t include chemicals like DEET, picaridin, and permethrin. Instead, they use compounds like essential oils from plants. You can put some on your skin, apply some to your clothing and gear, and put others on your lawn. 

Some of the most popular natural tick repellents include:

Essential oil-based tick repellents. There are a few kinds of commercially available tick repellents that are made with plant compounds like essential oils. Some of them include ingredients like lemongrass, cedar, peppermint, geraniol, and thyme.

A 2012 study discovered that when applied to clothing and gear, a plant-derived brand wasn't as effective against two kinds of ticks – the deer tick and the lone star tick – after seven days, when compared to other repellents that included chemical-based compounds.

Oil of lemon eucalyptus. Botanical-blends are another alternative to DEET. The CDC has approved oil of lemon eucalyptus as a safe and effective insect repellent. But these formulas don’t last as long as DEET, and you should reapply them every two hours. 

The CDC also advises against using pure oil of lemon eucalyptus on skin, since it can cause unfavorable reactions. It should also not be used on children under the age of 3.

Garlic oil. Some brands of lawn spray use garlic oil to keep ticks out of yards and gardens. This plant-derived tick repellent isn’t designed to be used on skin or clothing. One study suggests that while garlic-based tick repellents can be effective against ticks on a lawn, they might need more than one application to stay effective. 

Metarhizium brunneumorMetarhizium anisopliaefungus. These naturally occurring species of fungi from the mushroom family grow in soil and can repel or kill ticks. This bio-pesticide has been shown to be effective on lawns against ticks and other potentially-harmful insects. 

Further studies on these kinds of fungus have shown that they’re safe for pets, children, and other species of insects that may be helpful to the environment.

Nootkatone. The active compound in this natural tick repellent is found in the essential oils of certain kinds of cedar trees, herbs, and fruits. It isn’t currently available commercially, but researchers are studying it. In theory, you could put on your lawn and on clothing and gear. Researchers are working on how to make this bio-pesticide safe, long-lasting, and effective. 

Are Natural Tick Repellents as Effective as Chemical-Based Formulas?

At this time, research has shown that natural tick repellents aren’t as effective as chemically-based formulas. Experts recommend using products that contain 20% to 30% DEET or 20% Picaridin for the best protection against ticks. 

Preventing Exposure to Ticks

The best way to prevent tick bites is to stay away from areas that are tick habitat. Minimizing your exposure to ticks is one of the most effective ways to make sure that you don’t get ticks on your skin or clothing. When hiking or camping in tick habitat, stay on marked trails or in open areas to avoid contact with trees, tall grass, and brush.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES: 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Diseases Transmitted by Ticks," "Mosquitoes, Ticks & Other Arthropods."

Environmental Protection Agency: "Find the Repellent that is Right for You."

Environmental Working Group: "EWG's 2018 Guide to Bug Repellents."

Global Lyme Alliance: "Practice Safe Tick Prevention."

InformedHealth: "Tick bites: What are ticks and how can they be removed?"

Journal of Medical Entomology: "Effectiveness of Garlic for the Control of Ixodes scapularis (Acari: Ixodidae) on Residential Properties in Western Connecticut," "Efficacy and environmental persistence of nootkatone for the control of the blacklegged tick (Acari: Ixodidae) in residential landscapes," "Efficacy of plant-derived and synthetic compounds on clothing as repellents against Ixodes scapularis and Amblyomma americanum (Acari: Ixodidae)," "Field applications of entomopathogenic fungi Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae F52 (Hypocreales: Clavicipitaceae) for the control of Ixodes scapularis (Acari: Ixodidae)."

MaineHealth: "Tips for Avoiding Lyme Disease."

PLOS ONE: "The tick biocontrol agent Metarhizium brunneum (= M. anisopliae) (strain F52) does not reduce non-target arthropods."

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