Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Mosquitoes, ticks, and other bugs are not only annoying, they can also threaten human health. As far back as 2700 BC, a malaria-like disease was described in Chinese medical literature, and again in ancient Greek and Indian Sanskrit writings, where it was attributed to insect bites.
More recently, the spread of West Nile and zika viruses has become a new challenge, raising the question of whether or not to use chemical insect repellents that, although designated safe by government agencies, are toxic substances. DEET, for example, considered the gold standard for bug protection, can melt plastic.
What’s the best option? For some, chemical insect repellents are out of the question, perhaps because of a bad experience with a product, individual sensitivities, or simply on principle. For the rest of us, there isn’t one right answer, but there are several different natural strategies to try.
Make Your Environment Bug-Free
If you work in a building with sealed windows, and the screens on your doors and windows at home are in good repair, you likely won’t have an issue with insects buzzing around indoors. On the most basic level, this is your best bug protection. When venturing outside, the best choice depends upon where you live, and insect repellents aren’t the only weapon.
Do Citronella Candles Work?
Citronella candles, widely promoted to keep bugs at bay, have had mixed results in studies. However, one study found that being near a burning citronella candle reduced bites by 42 percent. Perhaps surprisingly, being near a regular burning candle also reduced bites (by 23 percent). This may be because mosquitoes are attracted by the carbon dioxide we exhale when we breathe, and the same gas emanating from a burning candle distracts them.
What Type of Clothing Is Best for Preventing Bug Bites?
If you’re into hiking or camping, or just live in an area that’s rife with mosquitoes and ticks, the right clothing can protect you in more ways than one. Loose clothing, with long sleeves and pants tucked into socks, creates a physical barrier against insects, but color also makes a difference. If you wear light-colored clothing, mosquitoes that bite during the day won’t see you as well from a distance. Once they’re closer, they rely on smell, especially sweat and bacteria on skin. In fact, people who sweat very little are less likely to get bitten.
Light-colored clothing has another advantage: It makes ticks easier to find, so that you can remove them before they transmit infectious bacteria. After a tick attaches to skin, it takes 36-48 hours for it to transmit Lyme disease bacterium, so it’s essential to find and detach them as quickly as possible (see “How to Remove a Tick,” below).
Essential Oil-Based Bug Repellents (DEET-Free)
Research shows that natural insect repellents made with essential oils do work, but for shorter periods of time than chemical substances. And not all of them are equally effective against all types of insects and ticks. Plant oils that have repellent qualities include citronella, cedar, verbena, pennyroyal, geranium, lavender, pine, cajeput, cinnamon, rosemary, basil, thyme, allspice, garlic, and peppermint.
Neem, although not legally considered an insect repellent in the United States, has a long history of warding off bugs, both as a tree in its natural surroundings and as an oil applied to the skin. And a patented soybean oil combined with other plant oils (found in Quantum Health’s Buzz Away Extreme) has been shown in studies to be as effective against several types of mosquitoes as a chemical formula with approximately 7 percent DEET.
How to Remove a Tick
If a tick attaches to your skin, don’t squish it or try to pull it off with your fingers. Use tweezers with a fine tip to grasp it close to the skin and pull away gently, without twisting. Flush it down the toilet, and thoroughly clean the affected area and your hands with alcohol or soap and water.
I’ve Been Bitten—Now What?
Natural remedies aren’t substitutes for medicine if you have an allergy, but they can provide relief:
Sprays, gels, creams, and ointments: Ingredients may include aloe, calendula, tea tree oil, oil of camphor, calamine, or menthol.
Homeopathy: Look for products that treat your specific symptoms. For example, these relieve swelling and itching with other traits: Apis mellifica for burning skin relieved by cold; Ledum palustre for fresh mosquito bites; Urtica urens for red blotches and hives.
Before You Buy Natural Bug Repellents
Not all products are designed to repel all types of bugs, and strengths vary. Check manufacturers’ websites or product labels to find out if a specific product targets mosquitoes, ticks, and/or other bugs that are a problem in your area.
Zika, West Nile, chikungunya, and dengue viruses, for example, are more likely to be spread by a type of mosquito called Aedes aegypti. Some natural insect repellents, such as Buzz Away, specifically state that they repel this particular mosquito, which tends to bite during the day and is particularly prevalent in tropical and subtropical climates, but also exists in more temperate areas.
Where there is a high risk of being bitten by a mosquito infected with zika or other virus, the CDC recommends using a repellent with one of these ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or PMD, short for para-menthane-diol, which may be derived from eucalyptus plants or synthetically formulated. To keep toxins to a minimum, use only as much as needed, and not more.
For CDC information about zika, other bug-borne viruses, and high-risk areas in the United States and around the world, visit cdc.gov/zika.
Check the Label
Like sunscreen, insect repellents need to be reapplied periodically to be effective. Follow product directions to ensure that you’re getting maximum protection.