Last Updated on June 21, 2021
Homemade bug repellent lets you keep pesky bugs at bay without dousing yourself with chemicals. Find out how easy it is to make your own homemade bug spray!
Why to Make Homemade Bug Spray
This is a guest post from Paul Turner of TakeOutdoors.com.
Bugs can ruin your enjoyment of summer bigtime. Whether you’re hiking or gardening or just trying to relax in the backyard, the insects that bite and sting can make you just hate being outside.
Here are some great home remedies for bug bites if you need them.
But you have to decide: Will you risk your health — and that of your family — by dousing the air or your skin with chemicals that may negatively affect your health? And what should you use to protect yourself from insect-borne diseases?
For the times when you’re protecting yourself from annoyance rather than dangerous diseases, a homemade potion might be just the ticket. It’s easy, and you can customize the scent according to your preferences and the bugs you’re trying to deter.
Mixing essential oils together to make your own homemade bug repellents can be an effective (and money-saving) way to deal with the flying pests of summer. Why make homemade bug repellent when so many products are “safe”?
If you’re a reader of this blog, you know that the US government’s system for evaluating chemical safety leaves most of the work up to the consumer. The regulatory agencies essentially assume every product is “safe” till proven otherwise, and doesn’t require safety data for the tens of thousands of chemicals you can find in American households (many of which are banned in the more precautionary EU).
In addition to active ingredients like DEET, most bug sprays contain proprietary fragrance chemicals and propellants like butane. If you’re trying to live less toxically, avoiding these things is a wise idea.
Reviewing the research on DEET, Scientific American editors found reports of side effects from DEET-based formulations affecting the skin, mouth and even the brain. In fact, a Duke University study found out that exposing DEET to rats for a long time caused severe brain and behavior problems. Other studies suggest that only sensitive individuals will have reactions to DEET. DEET is also an environmental pollutant, so avoiding it when you can is doing the earth a good turn as well.
There are times you may want something stronger than homemade bug repellent, however. The Environmental Working Group, which evaluates chemical safety quite rigorously, notes that essential oils don’t last long enough and aren’t effective enough to count on if you’re trying to avoid serious insect-borne diseases like Zika. EWG opines that DEET’s safety profile is better than most people assume when used correctly, and also offers advice on other active ingredients, like picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
(**Important to note that oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) is not the same as lemon eucalyptus essential oil. Here’s a brand of repellent made with oil of lemon eucalyptus.)
Other botanicals that show promise for repelling insects include geraniol, citronella, cedarwood, lemongrass, and catnip. Some of these ingredients may protect for up to eight hours and are safe for kids.
Take sensible precautions, too!
No bug spray (DIY or otherwise) is perfect, so take steps to keep bugs away before you open your kitchen laboratory:
- Long sleeves and long pants have been repelling bugs since humans began wearing clothing.
- Mosquitoes can’t navigate when the wind blows so fans make terrific deterrents.
- Inspect your yard for standing water and get rid of mosquito breeding areas. For whole yard protection, check out these easy-to-use nontoxic mosquito baits that keep mosquitoes, gnats, and black flies from reproducing.
Essential oils for homemade bug repellent
|Oil||Safe for kids?||Repels||Comments|
|Lemongrass||Yes||Mosquitoes, ticks||Evaporates slowly|
|Citronella||No||Mosquitoes, flying insects||Could trigger allergic reaction|
|Catnip||Yes||Mosquitoes, flying insects||May be more effective than DEET|
|Neem||Yes||Mosquitoes, flying insects||Frequent application advised|
|Soybean||Yes||Mosquitoes, flying insects||May protect for 5 or more hours|
|Cedar||Yes||Mosquitoes, flying insects, ants, ticks, fleas, lice||Great for pets and people|
|Lavender||Yes||Moths, bugs, lice, fleas||Pleasant smell|
|Chamomile||Yes||Mosquitoes||Especially effective on Dengue, Yellow fever carriers|
|Orange||Yes||Mosquitoes, ant colonies||It could kill good bugs|
|Peppermint||No||Mosquitoes, flying insects||Contains menthol|
|Rosemary||No||Mosquitoes, flying insects||Contains menthol|
|Eucalyptus||No||Sandflies, mosquitoes||Contains menthol|
|Clove||No||Mosquitoes, ants||Test on clothes before skin|
|Tea Tree||No||Mosquitoes, fleas, leeches, lice, ticks||Soothes bites and stings, too|
|Geranium||Yes||Mosquitoes||Won’t repel bees, wasps, hornets|
For more information on what oils are appropriate for different ages, consult this helpful post from The Hippy Homemaker.
How to Make Your Own Homemade Bug Spray
If you’re the creative sort and like some latitude when it comes to DIY projects, we share this general formulation before specific recipes.
Here’s a basic formula for DIY bug repellent:
Fill a clean spray bottle with 4 ounces of witch hazel (or 2 ounces of witch hazel and 2 ounces of apple cider vinegar, which also helps repel insects) and add 20 drops of what you’ve chosen as your main essential oil. Add another 20 drops of whichever other oils you prefer. You can also try this blend of essential oils from doTerra.
Catnip is an especially good choice, as it’s shown promise as more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET in laboratory tests. Geranium is also effective on mosquitoes and smells amazing.
A tablespoon of glycerin might help the mixture last longer on your skin.
If concentration is an issue (for someone with sensitive skin), you can dilute the mix further with an oil from this list of carrier oils to choose from. Adding a few drops of vanillin can extend protection longer, just be sure to use pure vanilla extract without sugar, so you don’t inadvertently attract insects!
Voila! You’ve made your own homemade bug repellent.
Homemade Bug Repellent Recipe #1 (for all ages):
20 drops of cedar essential oil
20 drops of lavender essential oil
2 ounces of apple cider vinegar
2 ounces of witch hazel
Pour all ingredients into a bottle and shake it until well combined.
Apply to exposed skin. Avoid eyes and mouth.
DIY Insect Repellent Recipe #2:
3 ounces beeswax pastilles
3 ounces shea butter
2 ounces coconut oil
15 drops citronella essential oil
15 drops lemongrass essential oil
15 drops lemon eucalyptus essential oil
5 drops peppermint essential oil
5 drops geranium essential oil
Heat up the beeswax pastilles, shea butter and coconut oil on low heat until they melt. Allow the mix to cool. Once cooled, add the essential oils and stir well. Put the mixture in a jar and wait for everything to solidify into a balm.
Because this is a salve rather than a spray, you avoid breathing in fumes, which means it’s less likely to result in a reaction when applied to kids over the age of two. Parents and campers love the fact that this repellent isn’t liquid so it won’t spill, making it an ideal natural repellent for backpackers.
Many of these essential oils have lots more uses than bug spray. Here’s a beginner’s guide to using essential oil to help you get started. If you have a bottle of peppermint oil around, you can find numerous uses for it. Here are 14 uses for peppermint oil — for relieving headaches, repelling pests, and more.
Cautions when you make homemade bug repellent
It’s hard not to love essential oils. But it’s important to remember that just because essential oils are natural, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be careful with them.
There are some situations in which even a cocktail of essential oils can be harmful, which is why it’s important to properly dilute oils with water, alcohol and other agents that lessen the potency of the oils.
These tips can also help you stay safe when using natural repellents:
- Avoid spraying essential oil formulas anywhere near the eyes.
- Test mixes on a small area just in case someone doesn’t know they’re allergic to essential oils.
- Avoid oils categorized as furanocoumarins (Angelica root; bergamot; cold-pressed lemon or lime; grapefruit; mandarin leaf; bitter orange and rue), if you’re highly allergic.
- Stay out of the sun or other UV light after an application of a furanocoumarin-laced oil mix for at least 12 hours. Furanocoumarin is a chemical present in some essential oils that increases the risk of phototoxicity, so best to keep these out of your homemade bug repellents!
- Don’t assume that because you’re wearing clothes, you’re not at risk for UV skin damage.
- Limit your use of essential oils. Sierra Bright, writing for the website Natural Living Ideas, notes: “treat essential oils like a medication — using them thoughtfully and sparingly.”
- Understand that bergamot, lemon, lime, mandarin, sweet orange and tangerine are safe as long as they have been cold-pressed or steam distilled. Cold-pressed bergamot is phototoxic but steam distilled bergamot is not phototoxic. Here’s a list of phototoxic essential oils and their extraction methods.
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Paul Turner is the man behind TakeOutdoors.com which he shares all his knowledge and experiences on camping. Planning meals for your next camping trip? Paul has got some ideas on storing food while camping.
Photo Credits: Kerkanno, mrscaz, rawpixel, Kristina M M
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.