Do natural bug repellants truly work in the great outdoors?

Bugs as an aspects of nature has never appealed to my delicate sensibilities, and not really because I dislike bugs. The sounds of buzzing around my ears and being attacked as an appealing blood bath is not my idea of a relaxing time; the sound irritates me.

My annoyance is not the only reason my skin crawls; mosquitoes, deer flies, ticks, and horseflies are all capable of carrying nasty diseases including Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme’s Disease, West Nile virus, Tularemia, Plague, and Encephalitis (from various locations, including California, St. Louis, Western).  

Natural Bug Repellant Scientific Evidence

The research out there for natural bug repellants is pretty weak right now. It’s not that they don’t not work, but they just don’t stand up as strongly currently against a preparation like DEET in sprays and lotions (DEET preparations typically last 60 minutes with 20-25% DEET).  As it’s easy to use DEET, not a lot of time and research is going into the harder work of fiddling with the right chemical combinations of natural alternatives. However, with your interest and demand, this is changing.

For mosquitoes, a systematic review published in 2011 did mention that citronella stood up better to protect against bites with vanillin, which yes, is the odour and flavour we associate with vanilla but is also found in other foods. Right now, the commercial preparations that use this knowledge are few and as it is a complex chemistry getting this exactly right in the right ratios as a recent paper realized, it will again be some time before we even know which preparations are working properly.

Natural Interventions

So, what is a girl to do trying to avoid DEET and non-natural alternatives? I have put a few to the test, and I’ll give my n=1 findings here (n=1 refers to the sample size one used in a study for all of you randomized-controlled trial obsessed out there :)

Natrapel: No points here for mosquitoes, and definitely not for deer flies. A citronella-based intervention, I think it actually attracted mosquitoes. It also promises rosemary and lavender which I wondered if just added to this attraction.

Citronella-based candles: Points here for mosquitoes, and deer flies are not out at night. Better for stationary activities, like sitting on a porch or around a campfire.

Bracelets: Absolutely terrible. Again, they were a point of attraction.

Chemical-Based Interventions

OFF Fan: This was a good happy medium to my need to be buzz-free and chemical-free (somewhat) as it is completely off the body. You attach the fan to your pants or shirt with a clip and if you are stationary, this does a relatively good job. Affordable as well.


Ongoing! I’ll be in the great outdoors shortly to give further products a try :)

Dr. Meghan Walker has a compliation of essential oils that she had success – I will test this out and see if this is helpful!

What natural bug repellants have worked for you? I’d love to hear it, so we can help one another out!


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