Natural Insect Repellants


Adapted from an article by Paul Henderson

The mosquito – that annoying harbinger of warm weather – is back. And increasingly, the blood-sucking pests aren’t just taking our blood and leaving itchy bumps behind, they are also leaving viruses and spreading panic in an easily panicked population.

What should be avoided when it comes to mosquitoes is allowing repellant measures to be worse than the illness – or the risk of illness. One should be aware of the risks of the disease and balance those against the risks of the almost universally touted DEET (diethyl-meta-toluamide).

DEET clearly works better than any other insect repellant tested but the toxic effects of this compound, created by the U.S. Department of Agricul-ture in the 1950s for military use, are undeniable.

What’s Wrong With Deet?

I can tell you firsthand from years of working in the bush that DEET is a substance that melts plastic, disintegrates most fabrics, and leaves nasty rashes on exposed skin. I have personally seen a tree planter evacuated off a clearcut site with toxic shock syndrome as a result of over-applying 95% DEET. Incidentally, it has been suggested that the lower percentage DEET repellants may actually be worse because the alcohol increases absorption (not to mention that people re-apply them more often).

DEET has been positively linked to dermal and neurological problems, and several cases of toxic encephalopathy (brain damage) associated with its use have been reported in the medical literature. Generalized seizures have been also associated with its use. Duke University Medical Center pharmacologist, M. Abou-Donia, made the link between DEET and Gulf War Syndrome; in 2002 Abou-Donia said that frequent and prolonged applications of DEET cause neurons to die in the region of the brain that control muscle movement, learning, memory, and concentration.

Children in particular are at risk for subtle brain changes because of their developing nervous systems and because their skin more readily absorbs chemicals.

“Never use insect repellants on infants, and be wary of using them on children in general,” Abou-Donia said. “Even so simple a drug as an antihistamine could interact with DEET to cause toxic side effects … Until we have more data on potential interactions in humans, safe is better than sorry.”

Non-toxic Insect Repellants – Herbalist Michael Vertolli says that essential oils with insect repellant properties come in three general categories: lemony scented oils such as citronella, lemon grass, lemon and lemon verbena; conifer oils like pine, fir, spruce, cedar and cypress; and general aromatics like basil, lavender, eucalyptus and geranium.

“I prefer to mix one or two items from each of these three categories,” Vertolli writes. “In total, use 15-20 drops of all essential oils for every 25 ml of your base (do not use 15-20 drops of each oil.)”

As a base, Vertolli says you can use vegetable oil, oil/alcohol, or water/alcohol/glycerin.

Through a polling of various experts on the topic it has been suggested that bugs are repelled by:

• garlic (they hate the smell of sulphur) • elder leaves • catnip • tansy leaves • lavender • pennyroyal • sassafra • lemongrass • peppermint • marigolds

The most widely touted repellant amongst those I spoke with was neem oil. Neem is an East Indian herb used not only to repel bugs but to heal wounds. Registered herbalist Carol Little says she is a fan of a spreadable gel with a base of neem oil.

“Neem is a wonderful plant and recognized in many countries for its healing and insect repellant properties,” Little says. This is illustrated well in a quote she provided from a 1993 article in the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association: “Two percent neem oil mixed in coconut oil, when applied to the exposed body parts of human volunteers, provided complete protection for 12 hours from the bites of all anopheline (mosquitoes that carry malaria) species. Application of neem oil is safe and can be used for protection from malaria in endemic countries.”

(Editor’s Note1: Dr. Joseph Mercola has just released an excellent article on new research showing that picardin and lemon eucalyptus oil are two excellent alternatives to DEET. To read the complete article, including warnings about usage in young children, click on this link:

(Editor’s Note2: This article is an edited reprint of a previous article written by Paul Henderson and published in the June 2003 issue of Vitality magazine. To read ‘The Bugs Are Back in Town’ click on this link:


Paul Henderson is a valued Vitality contributor.

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