Are Natural Insect Repellents Effective: 10 Experts Weigh In

In the light of Zika virus outbreak I get asked a lot about natural insect repellents and can they alone provide enough protection against mosquito bites and are they efficient enough to keep the mosquitoes away. So I turned to 10 experts in various mosquito and mosquito control fields, to find out the answer.

Christopher Cloutier
“The use of natural insect repellents has a long and storied past. Hard to believe that except for some, most of them are not incredibly efficient. I am a firm believer in the use of DEET
as being the best form of protection,
although I still do plant various natural repellents in my yard in the hopes that it will keep biting mozzies to a minimum.”
Cameron Webb
“There is a role for “natural” repellents in protection against mosquito-borne disease. However, it is important to remember that despite being perceived as “natural”, Plant-derived insect repellents such as those containing Tee-Tree oil, Eucalyptus oil or PMD (Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus) are chemicals just as much a DEET or Picaridin and, as a consequence, bring with them risk of skin and eye irritation. They are no “safer” than DEET or Picaridin. Care should be taken when using them with young children. The critical issue here is that these plant-derived products generally provide shorter periods of protection against biting mosquitoes than DEET or Picaridin. Therefore, if an individual prefers to use these products, they should be prepared to reapply repellent more frequently to get the same levels of ongoing protection against biting mosquitoes.“
Deborah Bass
“We believe it takes three important steps to reduce the risk of contracting mosquito-borne diseases. Luckily, they are simple steps:
1. Wear mosquito repellent for personal protection. There are three repellents that are recommended by the CDC and contain one of the following ingredients: DEET, Picaridin, and Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus. DEET is by far the most effective repellent
and the one our technicians use.
The ones containing Picaridin or Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, naturally occurring ingredients that are derived from plants, are less effective, but effective nonetheless. Please be sure to follow the label instructions. The latter products require more frequent use for protection.
2. Empty standing water so mosquitoes can't thrive in the first place. Mosquitoes can grow into biting adult mosquitoes in as little water as that found in a bottle cap.
3. Report mosquito issues to your local mosquito and vector control.”
Stephen Jones
“Heartworm disease, which is spread by mosquitoes, is one of the most serious and preventable diseases in pets. The American Heartworm Society (AHS) recommends that Pet owners take steps to reduce mosquito breeding and feeding, including use of proven mosquito repellents, drainage of standing water, avoiding over-watering of lawns, environmental treatment for mosquito larvae and keeping pets indoors during times of day when mosquito feeding is at its peak. These measures are recommended as an adjunct—but not a replacement—to year-round use of heartworm preventives to stop infection from occurring.”
Christopher Lambert
“"Natural" mosquito repellents are often preferred by the public
to synthetic repellents since they are deemed safer,
which is often not the case
(after all, arsenic and hydrogen cyanide are completely natural!). Although these natural repellents can have comparable efficacy to synthetic repellents such as DEET or Picaridin, they tend to have less longevity, therefore requiring more frequent reapplication. This isn't to say natural plant products shouldn't be researched for their capability as insect repellents, as many of today’s synthetic repellents or pesticides are based on these chemicals (such as pyrethroids being developed from naturally occurring pyrethrins).”
Denise L. Bonilla
“There are some natural repellents that do a good job of providing protection against mosquito bites. FDA approved oil of lemon eucalyptus, smells nice and offers protection against bites from many mosquito species. Like many repellents, its efficacy somewhat depends on the individual on whom it is applied. In other words, it works better for some people than others. People should experiment with FDA approved repellents to find the one that works the best for them and always follow the label instructions.”
Richard Jones
“I am thoroughly skeptical of "natural" insect repellents, whether chemical, herbal, scented oils, burning incense, electrical buzzing devices. As far as I can tell, DEET is about the only thing that really works. And even that is not 100% effective. Barriers, whether long sleeves and long trousers, window screens and bed nets are the best option.”
Cara McMahon
“The go-to anti-mosquito spray is DEET, but for several reasons, many people can’t or won’t use this chemical. As an alternative, there are several all-natural mosquito treatments available, including some you can make right at home. All-natural mosquito treatments offer several benefits, including: non-toxic and safe for kids and pets, lower chance of allergic reactions, nice scent, affordable price and easily replaced. Unfortunately, most all natural mosquito repellents don’t last as long as chemical repellents and don’t always work as well at deterring mosquitoes.

Before there was DEET and chemical insect repellents, people used plant oils. Notably, oil of lemon eucalyptus has been found to be nearly as effective as 25 percent DEET, repelling mosquitoes by invading their sense of smell with this fragrant oil. Today, there are several oil of lemon eucalyptus sprays available, but you can also make your own. Buy a small bottle of 100 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus, mix with a mild (but not sweet smelling) oil like olive oil, sunflower oil, or soybean oil and for extra strength, mix with an alcohol like vodka or even witch hazel. Oil of lemon eucalyptus can work up to six hours, so reapply liberally. Other essential oils include: citronella and citronella candles, lemongrass oil, lavender oil, peppermint oil and tea tree oil. For a very potent and effective all-natural mosquito treatment, mix a combination of these oils with olive oil, witch hazel or vodka and rub into your skin.

Besides essential oils, there are very few natural mosquito repellents. In countries where mosquitoes and their diseases run rampant, mosquito nets are the most affordable and efficient natural mosquito repellent. Several plants can also serve as mosquito deterrents (Basil, Marigold, Lemon balm, Citrosa, Lavender, Lemon thyme, Peppermint, Garlic), but their effectiveness is low. If you have a favorite spot to sit in your yard, consider planting a combination of these plants along with having a few citronella candles on hand. Even if these plants don’t work, at least you’ll have a beautiful garden!

If you’re looking for a non-chemical mosquito solution, DC Mosquito Squad carries a natural barrier spray that repels ticks and mosquitoes through odor alone. While this natural mosquito control method is not as powerful or long lasting as our normal barrier spray, for many families and property owners, this is their method of choice.”
Eric Erlendson
“Natural products do provide a level of protection against bites. But Zika virus takes only one bite to have the virus spread. The DC Mosquito Squad’s garlic product provides an efficacy rating of 60-65% repellency. We have many customers who are loyal to our natural treatment and have been satisfied with its results but have also had some who switch over to our standard (synthetic) treatment due to poor performance of the garlic. While I would not hesitate promoting the efficiency of Pyrethroid insecticides for mosquito bite protection I have to stop short saying the same about garlic due to the efficacy rating.”
Luz Maria Robles
“Using an effective mosquito repellent to prevent mosquito bites is key! While there are many types of repellents ranging from sprays, lotions and oils, The best repellent is one you will actually use! Repellent efficacy and duration of protection can vary considerably among people, products and the mosquito species. The most common insect repellents recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) contain DEET, Picaridin and IR3535. The only natural repellent option approved for use by CDC is oil of lemon eucalyptus, but it should not be used on children under three. Using repellent with this active ingredient and following label instructions can provide adequate protection from mosquito bites.”

So can natural insect repellents alone protect you against mosquitoes?

Most experts stand by DEET as the only really efficient insect repellent, that will provide the protection you need against mosquitoes and other insects. And although they believe, that natural repellent can be somewhat efficient, they need to be reapplied often and can still cause irritation to some, similar as repellents containing DEET.

But at the end of the day using any type of repellent, whether it is natural or not, will be better and will provide more protection than if you don’t use a repellent at all. So as Luz Maria Robles from Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito & Vector Control District says “the best repellent is one you will actually use“!

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