Got bugs? Some safer solutions for insect repellants

Updated June 18, 2008

A Smart Mama reader asked for some less toxic bug sprays.  There’s no doubt that a lazy summer afternoon can be ruined by biting bugs.  So, we almost all turn to insect repellants.  But, you may not want to use a product that contains a pesticide such as DEET.  DEET’s use is controversial.  Major regulatory and medical establishments, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, claim the DEET is safe and effective if used properly. However, studies have found that DEET can slow motor skills and impair central nervous system function, especially if used with permethrin (used on some outdoor clothing to repel insects).  These studies associated adverse health effects from sustained, regular use of DEET-containing repellants (at least once per day, for 5 or more days).  The reported adverse health effects included skin irritation and headaches to seizures, restlessness, rapid loss of consciousness and even death. 

So, what’s a Smart Mama to do?  I tend to prefer trying prevention first (such as screens, long sleeves, planting plants that repel bugs, etc.) first.  If we still are having bug problems, I prefer an insect repellent that uses essential oils instead of using a product containing a synthetic pesticide.   Plants whose essential oils have been reported to have repellent activity include citronella, cedar, verbena, geranium, lavender, pine, cajeput, cinnamon, rosemary, basil, thyme, allspice, garlic, and peppermint.  Calendula ointment is also an excellent insect repellent.  But, there is a downside to using these products.  They tend to give short-lasting protection, usually less than 2 hours.  So, if you are in an area with insects carrying potentially life-threatening diseases, and you need to have long lasting protection, it may make sense to use an insect repellent with DEET or something similar.  Just make sure you follow the instructions.   

But, let’s talk about some of the alternate insect repellents.  Before we do, just a couple of caveats.  First, these all contain essential oils to repel bugs.  So, most of these products work by scent, and need to be applied and re-applied generously, as discussed above.  Second, essential oils can be irritating or cause allergic reactions.  It is always a good idea to patch test before applying all over.  And, of course, if you know  you have a reaction to a particular plant, then stay away from products containing that plant.

Okay, so on to some Smart Mama options:

california baby insect repellentCalifornia Baby’s Natural Bug Blend Bug Repellent Spray uses citronella, lemongrass and cedar essential oils to repel bugs.  A lot of readers have reported enjoying the scent.  Trust me – it does not smell like synthetic citronella.

Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent relies primarily upon rosemary to repel insects.  Its ingredients are: glycine soja (soybean) oil, ricinus communis (castor) seed oil, rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) leaf oil, cymbopogon schoenanthus (lemongrass) oil, thuja occidentalis (cedar) leaf oil, mentha piperita (peppermint) oil, cymbopogon nardus (citronella) oil, eugenia caryophyllus (clove) flower oil, geranium maculatum (geranium) oil, and tocopherol. 


Ecosmart’s Insect Repellant uses a blend of the following organic plant oils:  rosemary, cinnamon leaf, lemongrass and geraniol.  It comes in a spray bottle.  The other ingredients are isopropyl alcohol, isopropyl myristate and wintergreen oil.  My son really likes this scent – I think it is a little much, but I don’t like wintergreen.  I understand that it is available at Wal-Mart.


A Smart Mama reader pointed out Mexitan’s Skeedattle Anti-Bug Spray.  The ingredients are vanillin, citronella oil, lemongrass oil, peppermint oil, potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate.  The company does not use synthetic fragrances or preservatives, and the products are paraben free.  As an added bonus, you can use the product on pets to repel fleas and ticks.

The Bite Blocker comes in a lotion, a spray and a wipe.  The products are a blend of soybean and coconut oils and are safe for kids.  The company also sells organic clothing treated with its tomato-based insect repellant.  In tests, it has performed as well as DEET-containing products for specified time periods.

Another option is a product containing eucalyptus lemon essential oil.  It is the only plant-based active ingredient for insect repellents so far approved by the CDC.  (The CDC has also approved the synthetic version – known as PMD – I would skip the synthetic version completely).  But, eucalyptus lemon essential oil can be toxic if ingested in high concentrations.  So, only use a product with a low concentration of eucalyptus essential oil.  Plus, these products are not recommended for children under 3 years of age, so I tend to skip them.  However, I like eucalyptus lemon essential oil.  Why? Because silverfish do not.  And I do not like silverfish.  I just put a little on a piece of fabric and stick it at the back of my cabinets.  No more silverfish.  Whoo-hoo!  I get mine from:

Mountain Rose Herbs. A herbs, health and harmony c

But, a Smart Mama knows that prevention is always the best solution.  Some Smart Mama Simple Steps to reduce the need for insect repellents:

  • Stay indoors at dawn and dusk, when the flying insects are most likely to be out and about looking for you.

  • If you live near a woods, spread a 3-foot-wide swath of wood chips between your lawn and the woods to deter ticks.  Ticks aren’t able to navigate the chips.

  • Don’t let mosquitoes breed.  Eliminate standing water in your yard.  And don’t forget to clear clogs from gutters – mosquitoes will breed in a very small amount of water.

  • If you have a birdbath, change the water twice weekly.

  • Don’t forget to change any outdoor water dishes daily.

  • Plant scented geraniums, lemon thyme, marigold, tansy, citrosa plants, sweet basil, and/or sassafras near your home to repel mosquitoes.
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  1. Many sprays contain the chemical DEET, which I’m sure you’ve heard can be harmful to humans. The EPA says that if used as directed, bug sprays containing DEET are not harmful to us, although long-term exposure is. When you spray it on your skin, it gets absorbed and eventually enters the bloodstream. It pumps through your nervous system and has been proven to kill brain cells, causing neurological damage. If you have heavy exposure to DEET, you may experience memory loss, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and shortness of breath. Mosquito bites aren’t looking so bad now, huh?

  2. I thought that sodium benzoate is a harmful preservative? Above it says that it is in Mexitan’s Skeedattle.

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