Essential Oils: Powerful Bug Spray Alternatives

by Rachel Rose Teferet

It’s summertime: the sun is shining, the birds are singing… and the bugs are biting and stinging. Most people aren’t aware but, “Insect-borne disease is a leading cause of sickness and death worldwide. Mosquitoes alone transmit disease to more than 700 million persons annually.”1 Mosquitoes can transmit diseases like Malaria and West Nile Virus, but Dr. Stephen Buhner posits that mosquitoes — as well as other biting insects — can transmit Lyme disease: “…Live spirochetes (the mechanism of lyme infections) have been found in mosquitoes, mites, fleas, and biting flies and transmission through some of these routes has been documented.”2


Given all that scary business, it makes good sense to try and prevent insect bites! The mainstream bug sprays on the market commonly used a pesticide called DEET. While DEET has been proven to be effective against bugs, “traditional DEET-based chemical insect repellants are themselves repelling health conscious consumers because of their proven toxicity. In 2003, a Duke University Medical Center Pharmacologist recommended caution when using the insecticide DEET after his studies on rats found that DEET causes diffuse brain cell death and behavioral changes after frequent and prolonged use… DEET kills bugs, but it’s also capable of dissolving watch crystals, the frames of glasses, and certain synthetic fibers.”3

It can seem like you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t — either you can be eaten alive by insects, vectors of horrible diseases, or you can slather yourself with pesticides and dissolve a couple brain cells! Don’t fret. There are highly effective natural alternatives you can try. Of course, if you are wading through a malaria-infested jungle, using a little DEET might be the lesser of two evils. But if you are just enjoying an afternoon by the river, or barbecuing in your backyard, less extreme, natural alternatives might be right for you.

Natural Alternatives to DEET: Essential Oils

Here is a list of just a few essential oils found to be highly effective against bugs.

Citronella: Citronella is one of the most common essential oils used to repel bugs and is added to bug sprays, candles, and torches. Not only is it cheap, but it is effective. Citronella, however, is not one of my favorite oils to use. Not only is it too strong for sensitive individuals like myself, but I plain just don’t like the smell! Moreover, “A 2003 study at Guelph University found that while citronella was 30-per-cent effective in repelling mosquitoes, rose geranium oil was 97-per-cent effective.”4 Which leads me my favorite bug repelling oil…


Rose Geranium: I personally have found this oil to be extremely effective in repelling not only mosquitoes, but ticks as well. Actually, it was Shea Smith, the owner of HAALo, who first turned me onto this essential oil. Not only does it smell lovely, but my dog likes it too, and it helps to keep ticks and biting insects off both of us! The only downside to this oil is that, unlike citronella, it can be quite pricey, especially for a high-quality oil. I have been so impressed by its effect on repelling bugs, however, that I decided to make it a foundational ingredient in my own formulation, “Banjo Dave’s Bug Spray” (available at HAALo).

Catnip: Catnip was one of the first fragrances I experimented with when making a personal bug spray for myself many years ago. One study showed that “…two formulations of catnip oil provided >95% protection and were effective for up to 6 hours when tested on cattle. Catnip oil also acted as a strong oviposition repellent and reduced gravid stable fly oviposition by 98%” 5 However, I stopped my experiments short with this fragrance when I learned that, “All felines, from the wild mountain lion to the domestic tabby, are attracted to this species.”6 Since I live in a highly wooded area in Nevada County — and one of my goats was likely just eaten by a mountain lion! — I’ve decided to use other fragrances.


Neem Oil: Neem oil is my husband’s favorite ingredient to use in bug spray. We use it in the garden as well to deter aphids and mites. Neem oil comes from the neem tree, and is commonly used in India in Ayurvedic medicine. “The oil has a strong, bitter odor that repels bugs without making you smelly,” says Vasant Lad, executive director of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 7 My husband and I have personally found neem oil to be one of the single most effective ingredients in our bug spray.

Eucalyptus: Eucalyptus essential oil is another one of my favorites to use in bug spray. In fact, in my spray I use a blend of a few different eucalyptus essential oils, including eucalyptus dives, traditionally used in Australia to repel bugs.

Lemon-Scented Eucalyptus: Recently, a study has come out showing that lemon scented eucalyptus is more effective than DEET in repelling bugs! 8 I’m hoping that soon scientists will study other types of eucalyptus in clinical trials and prove what traditional wisdom and common sense have known for a long time: that eucalyptus in its many forms is fabulous for repelling bugs.


According to Kathi Keville’s book, Aromatherapy: a Complete Guide to the Healing Art (my very favorite aromatherapy book) there are more than 600 species of eucalyptus with their own unique fragrances. Many of those species and chemotypes have been used effectively for bug repellent, including the most common and widely available blue gum variety (Eucalyptus globules). 9 HAALo carries a wide variety of different types of Eucalyptus essential oil by Floracopeia, and many smell very different from each other — so I invite you to sniff around and see if one suits you better than the rest.

Other excellent essential oils include: peppermint, lavender, tea tree, cedar, lemongrass, thyme, and rosemary. 10

Other Resources

B Vitamin Complex is often used as a preventative supplement to take before visiting insect-prone areas. 11

Currently the book Healing Lyme: Natural Healing and Prevention of Lyme Borreliosis and its Coinfections by Stephen Buhner is on sale at HAALo. It has a whole chapter called, “Prevention of Lyme and Initial Treatment After Tick Bite.” I highly recommend it!


Buddha and the Bugs

Earlier this month, I took a week-long retreat at a Buddhist sanctuary. The signs said that we should refrain from killing any bugs — including mosquitoes! — since they are considered sentient beings. I thought this was an odd yet interesting proposal, and I decided to give it a try. One day on a hike, I sat down to take a rest and was instantly swarmed by buzzing, blood-sucking bugs. My first reaction was to DESTROY THEM! I raised my arm to swat them but remembered my intention and quickly stopped. With a smile I simply spritzed myself with a little of my homemade bug spray and the little suckers just buzzed off.

This experience got me thinking. So often in mainstream society, we treat our problems like battles that need to be waged: bugs carry disease or kill crops, so we must use strong chemicals and pesticides to destroy them; people can die from infections, so we must use antibiotics. The result: we create a world where it is us-against-them, and in my opinion, we end up hurting ourselves just as much as we hurt the bugs. For example, we cover our conventional food crops in pesticides to prevent bugs, but at what cost to human health and to the environment?

Similarly, I realized that there was a fight in me when I went to swat the mosquito, as if the mosquito was not a living creature just doing its natural, albeit annoying, job. I had never thought about this before, and the moment I stopped being at war with the mosquito, I felt so peaceful and connected to nature in a new way. Not to say that I’ll never swat a mosquito again… but it was a mind-opening experience. Is there a way we can live with our environment without being at war with it? Yes…I think we can!

Essential-Oil-Bug-SprayMy Journey with Bug Spray

For about five years I’ve been experimenting with different kinds of bug repellents, crafting everything from body oils, salves, sprays, and even rubbing myself with fresh plant matter like marigold flowers and mugwort leaves. When we adopted our dog three years ago, I started working on a bug spray that both the dog and I could use.

I feed my dog organic food, and I didn’t want to give her any of the pesticide-based, bug-repelling formulas available on the market. I tried so many things! One neighbor recommended pennyroyal and oregano essential oil, but I thought those oils were much too strong to use on my dog — or even on myself. Through a long period of trial and error, I finally developed a spray that I think works really well (and my dog agrees!).

If you feel so called, I invite you to experiment with making your own bug spray. It can be fun and easy. Everyone’s body chemistry, preferences, and what they like to smell vary widely, but luckily, HAALo has many different essential oils to choose from.

If you don’t like using essential oils, you can try extracting fragrance from fresh plant matter, like making a mugwort and peppermint tea to put in a spray bottle. Using plant-based fragrance to make your own bug spray is a great way to connect with nature, and may even help you to be at peace with our insect pals in our environment. As a friend of mine from Maine once said, you can’t have blueberries without black flies! Or as I like to say, every silver lining has its cloud.

If you would like to try a pre-made natural bug-repelling product that is tried and true (and smells pretty darn good), come check out Banjo Dave’s Bug Spray, made by my company Rachel Rose Studios and available in the HAALo Herb Shoppe.

Thank you for reading this article. I welcome your comments and questions below 🙂

Rachel Rose TeferetRachel Rose Teferet works behind the counter at HAALo on Fridays.

If you are interested in learning more about essential oils and aromatherapy, Kathi Keville teaches Top Essential Oils for Mind and Body on August 11 at HAALo. It’s only $15 if you register before the August 4 early bird deadline!



1 Dangerous insects, safe repellents. Burnett, Bruce. Alive: Canada's Natural Health & Wellness Magazine. Jun2004, Issue 260, p126-129.

2 Buhner, Stephen. Healing Lyme. Raven Press, New Mexico, 2005, p.5

3 Dangerous insects, safe repellents. Burnett, Bruce. Alive: Canada's Natural Health & Wellness Magazine. Jun2004, Issue 260, p126-129.

4 Ibid.

5Z H U1, Dr. Berkebile, et all. Medical and Veterinary Entomology (2012) 26, 131–138.

6 PLANT OF THE WEEK, Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department,

7 Best bug relief. By: Hayes, Susan. Natural Health. Jul2009, Vol. 39 Issue 7, p81-82.

8 This Natural Bug Repellent Works Better Than Deet, Dr. Mercola.

9 Kathi Keville and Mindy Green, Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art. Crossing Press, Berkeley, 2009. P. 188

10 Homemade Fly Dope. GABRIS, LINDA. Ontario Out of Doors. Jun2012, Vol. 44 Issue 5, p50-51. 2p.

11 Beating the bugs the natural way. Nelson Mail, The. 02/15/2002, p17.

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