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SAGE ADVICE: Repelling Insects the Natural Way


by Iris Gage

Dear Iris,

I enjoy spending time outside but I find myself unable to deal with the insects. The mosquitoes, flies, and ticks are constantly bothering me and giving me anxiety. What can I do to repel them naturally so that I don’t have to resort to products with DEET?

Imagine yourself lying down on a cozy blanket outside, enjoying the fresh summer breeze, swooning over your new novel, not worrying about a thing. All of the sudden—buzz buzz—a tiny uninvited mosquito enters your serene, meditative zone, lands on your flesh, and starts to dine on your vital fluids. You might be lucky enough to swat it away before it has caused too much damage, but chances are you aren’t. And even if successful, the jerk will be back, probably with more friends.

This, unfortunately, is a common occurrence when we are trying to enjoy nature in Vermont, and the irony is painful. While insects are a crucial part of the food chain and important pollinators for plants, it’s still beneficial for our sanity and skin to take precautions to repel their ubiquitous existence. Here are some effective natural ways to do so without using DEET and other industrial chemicals.

Disguise and Repel with Sprays: A pleasant way to repel insects is with an aromatic spray that also disguises us from them. Bug sprays can be found at any convenience store or supermarket, but I like to make my own with minimal yet effective ingredients. Essential oils such as rose geranium, tea tree, eucalyptus, patchouli, citronella, lavender, catnip, lemongrass, palmarosa, and peppermint are all excellent at warding off insects. Vanilla extract diluted in water (equal parts) is hands down my favorite. I get to smell exquisite while also being impervious.

Protect with Clothing: Wear light-colored clothing; white, tan, and light green colors are less attractive to bugs. As fun as they are, try to avoid floral print clothing, mostly because you don’t want to look like a flower! Oddly, blue clothing is supposedly a mosquito’s color of choice.

Decrease Attraction:Supporting digestion and your “gut microbiome” (an ecosystem of beneficial microorganisms in the digestive tract) might help the most. Some scientists are extrapolating that people with weak digestion are more likely to release odors that are alluring to insects. Maybe it’s time to start taking those probiotics sitting in your fridge. Garlic (three capsules daily) will make your skin very unappetizing to most insects. B vitamin complex supplement (100 mg daily, 50 mg for kids) causes your skin to create a scent that many insects dislike. Drink apple cider vinegar daily (1 teaspoon diluted in half cup water) to change your perspiration odor.

Tidy Up: If you keep your backyard in pristine condition then insects won’t be as lured in. Mow the lawn, skim the pool, trim hedges, and remove standing water, this way everything won’t be overgrown, shady, and generally stagnant feeling. Many insects are attracted to areas with minimal light and still water to lay their eggs, don’t entice them. Also, encourage natural insect predators to your backyard, such as birds and amphibians. I personally have bantam chickens in my backyard to eat all the ticks.

Personal Hygiene: Take showers and clean off sweat, especially after exercise. Mosquitoes are attracted to body odors and lactic acid (excreted by the skin after a good workout). Keep in mind that not only sweat and lactic acid but also the carbon dioxide you exhale will attract certain bugs.

Diffuse Aromas:  The same essential oils used for spraying your skin can also be diffused into the surrounding air by using an essential oil diffuser and scented candle. Many products are heavily scented with citronella oil,  but lemongrass and palmarosa essential oils are just as effective and generally safer (both are cousins of citronella).

Repel with Potted Plants: Grow insect-repelling plants such as marigolds, basil, rosemary, and lavender in pots and place them on your deck or porch. You can also rub them fresh on your skin to prevent bites.

Remedies for Bites: Bug bites can often result in itchy and painful welts that shouldn’t be scratched, even though the urge is sometimes unbearable. This welt occurs from the bug’s saliva, causing a histamine immune response. Cilantro and plantain, when chewed or chopped up and applied to a bite or sting will instantly pacify the itching and burning. Peppermint hydrosol sprayed directly on a bite will abate itching. Diluted apple cider vinegar (1 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar to 3 tablespoons water) applied to the bite site also works well.

Natural Insect Repellent

  • 20 drops rose geranium essential oil
  • 20 drops lavender essential oil
  • 10 drops lemongrass essential oil
  • 5 drops tea tree essential oil
  • 5 drops patchouli essential oil
  • 4 ounces carrier oil (such as almond oil) or witch hazel extract

Combine all essential oils with carrier oil or witch hazel extract into a 4-ounce glass spray bottle and shake well. If made with carrier oil, apply liberally to skin. If made with witch hazel extract, apply liberally to clothing and skin. Both need to be reapplied every couple of hours. Avoid eyes and other sensitive areas.

Simple Insect Repellant

  • 10 drops cedarwood essential oil (Juniperus virginiana) 
  • 1 ounce vanilla extract
  • 1 ounce water                                                                                                                                          

Combined cedarwood essential oil with vanilla extract in a 2 ounce glass spray bottle, shake well. Then add water and shake well again. Apply to skin and clothing and avoid eyes and sensitive areas.  Shake the bottle well with every application.  Not suitable during pregnancy and may irritate sensitive skin.