A Better Buzzkill

Win the battle against bugs with these DEET-free oils.
By Melissa Lum

As the warm, summer weather draws you outside for barbecues, trips to the lake, and poolside gatherings, you’ll likely encounter some uninvited guests that can quickly cause you to run for cover. Alas, mosquitoes, gnats, and other pesky bugs remain a fact of life during this time of year, making insect repellent a necessity for surviving the season. Conventional repellents often contain DEET, a pesticide developed by the US Army in 1946. Until recently, scientists couldn’t explain exactly how DEET works, except that it masks bug-attracting odors. In a study conducted at New York City’s Rockefeller University, researchers discovered that DEET actually blocks certain odor receptors in insect nervous systems.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control both recommend DEET-based products as “safe when used as directed,” they specify that exposure to DEET should be brief. As nutritionist Malia Curran, MPH, explains, “It’s a good idea to avoid harsh chemicals in any product that comes in contact with the skin, since what goes on the body is absorbed into the body.” And according to the World Health Organization, our skin absorbs up to 77 percent of the DEET we apply. Having such a high level of the toxin entering the bloodstream, combined with a tendency for people to reapply DEET too often, can lead to numerous negative effects. Studies show that frequent use of DEET can cause brain-cell death and trigger behavioral changes as a result of neurological damage. Certain essential oils protect from pests without the damaging consequences associated with DEET sprays, so this summer reach for one of the following natural repellents and enjoy your outdoor activities.

Lemon eucalyptus oil
The EPA recommends the active ingredient in lemon eucalyptus oil, p-menthane 3,8-diol (or PMD), as an effective repellent that provides protection similar to low levels of DEET. To use, mix one to three drops of lemon eucalyptus essential oil in a teaspoon of a base, or “carrier,” oil and apply to skin. Good carrier oils include sweet almond, jojoba, apricot seed, and grape seed.

Citronella oil
The distinct odor of citronella makes it difficult for insects to locate a host. The main components of citronella—geraniol and citronellal—produce a floral, lemony aroma that masks human scent and keeps the bugs at bay. To make your own citronella spray, add 60 drops of citronella essential oil to 2 ounces of witch hazel extract.

Neem oil
In ayurvedic medicine, this natural insecticide that comes from the mahogany family has been used for centuries for its healing properties. The active ingredient in neem oil, azadirachtin, masks body scent and changes the taste of your skin, making it less appealing to buzzing insects. To make your own neem repellent, add a few drops of pure neem oil to a teaspoon of carrier oil.

Lavender oil
One of the most gentle essential oils, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) has a variety of uses, from healing cuts and burns to balancing the senses with its calming aroma. Its insect-fighting qualities come from the compound geraniol, which masks human scent. To use, mix a few drops of lavender essential oil with a teaspoon of carrier oil and apply topically.

Melissa Lum is a freelance health and wellness writer who is based in Boston, Massachusetts.