The earliest insect repellents included smoke, mud, and various plant substances. Our contemporary contribution is DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), a powerful insecticide found in over 400 repellents. DEET can peel paint, damage rayon and spandex, and melt plastic. Up to 56 percent of DEET applied to the skin enters the bloodstream, and reactions to it include skin rashes, lethargy, muscle spasms, nausea, and irritability. An extreme reaction can cause seizures and even death. So it’s hardly worth using DEET to deter insects unless you’re someplace with high rates of insect-borne disease or you experience severe allergic reactions to bites and stings.
There are natural alternatives to DEET, made primarily from plant essential oils that can protect you in less threatening circumstances.
Here are some of the best natural repellents for bugs:
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
This well-known and much beloved essential oil can be used as a natural insect repellent to deter fleas and other crawling bugs. It also soothes the irritation of flea bites. Because of its sedative properties, it’s good for people who are overly excitable or nervous.
Cedarwood (Cedrus Atlantica)
Cedarwood is a true insecticide, and its use is recorded throughout history. It is one of my mainstays for keeping fleas and mosquitoes at bay. It is also calming and grounding.
Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
Geranium is one of the favorite oils to use in a tick repellent blend, and it also repels lice and fleas. It is cooling and relaxing.
Vanilla extract is usually effective as an insect repellent for about half an hour. So if you are outdoors for a longer period, just apply some more to your skin, especially on exposed areas such as the neck and pulse points. Also consider reapplying more often if you are exposed to very high temperatures which may cause it to evaporate quickly, and in cases of being diluted with perspiration, rain, or other water elements.
Using vanilla extract as an insect repellent can be much cheaper than chemical deterrents, and it can be easily made up in just a few minutes. Additionally, it is always best to use a natural insect repellent rather than the commercial artificial sprays, as long as vanilla does not irritate your skin.
Vinegar is one of those magic ingredients. It cleans, it disinfects, and it even repels ants! Spray vinegar on and around any area that has an ant problem.
Rub a slice of onion over your skin to keep mosquitoes and other insects away. (I don’t think I’ll try this! If you do, let me know!)
Rub citrus peels (oranges, lemons, limes) on skin keep bugs away.
Soap spray is also effective for controlling mites, aphids, whiteflies, beetles, and other hungry little insects. To make a basic soap spray insecticide, mix 1 1/2 teaspoons of a mild liquid soap (such as castile soap) with 1 quart of water, and spray the mixture directly on the infected surfaces of the plants. A soap spray insecticide works in a similar fashion as an oil spray pesticide, and can be applied as necessary.