12 Natural Ways to Keep Bugs at Bay
Less itching and scratching will make everyone's summer more fun, so stock up on these chemical-free insect repellents—you might even already have a few of them on hand.
The real reasons you don’t want to get bit
Let’s face it, insects are called pests for a reason. Bugs that bite and sting are an itchy nuisance—and they also happen to be blood-sucking disease-spreaders. Disease cases from mosquito, tick, and flea bites tripled in the United States from 2004-2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, nine new germs spread by mosquitoes and ticks have been discovered or introduced since 2004. Need convincing? Here are 12 mosquito-born illnesses you need to know about.
Sure, you could arm yourself with a full-body suit, but that’s no way to spend the summer. You also could douse every square inch of yourself with chemical repellents, but the smell is awful, and who knows what the long-term health consequences might be? Instead, check out these 12 natural ways to protect yourself from the creepy-crawlies.
Wear long, loose, and light-colored clothing
Everyone forgets this one, but it works: Creating a loose-fitting physical barrier between you and insects, especially mosquitoes, means they will have a harder time getting to your flesh. “The necessity of wearing light-colored clothing stems from the fact that since dark-colored clothing absorbs more heat, bugs that rely on their thermal sensory information detecting vision to find their targets can spot people wearing dark clothes more easily,” says Karen Thompson, former lead editor of InsectCop.net, an insect and pest control advice blog. Essentially, mosquitoes are military-grade thermal scopes that can target body heat, according to a study in Current Biology.
Remove standing water
“Since three of the four mosquito life stages are in standing water, I would recommend that people target those areas to get the mosquitoes before they really become a problem,” says Wizzie Brown, an entomologist and extension program specialist in integrated pest management with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, out of Texas A&M University. She suggests draining any standing water around the landscape that will last longer than three days, refreshing pet water dishes or bird baths every three days, and filling ponds with mosquito-feeding fish to help reduce the populations. Here are some more steps you can take to avoid insect bites and stings.
Never underestimate the power of a good old-fashioned floor fan. Nancy Troyano, PhD, entomologist and director of technical education and training at Rentokil North America, says to place one near you when sitting outdoors or sleeping with the windows open. “Mosquitoes are weak fliers and will not be able to fly against the air currents produced by the fans,” she explains. Here are some more surprising things mosquitoes absolutely hate.
Mosquitoes are attracted to human scents, such as carbon dioxide, body odor, and lactic acid (emitted through your skin after eating certain foods or exercising). Obviously, bathe regularly—but don’t try to mask body odor with perfume or flowery scents, warns Dr. Troyano. This could actually increase your bug traffic. In general, heavily scented body fragrances, shampoos, hair spray, lotions, and soaps are known to attract mosquitoes. Stick with unscented skin care and hygiene products. Learn some more surprising factors that make you more (or less) attractive to mosquitoes.
Love the fresh, citrusy scent of citronella? Keep it handy, because mosquitoes hate it. “Citronella candles, oil, or incense, which can be burned indoors and outdoors, prevent the arrival of bugs,” says Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics. In a study published in Tropical Medicine and International Health, citronella oil worked to repel mosquitoes for at least three hours. Here are some more surprising mosquito repellents you’ll actually want to use.
Oil of lemon eucalyptus
Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) is an extract from the lemon eucalyptus tree. It is different from lemon eucalyptus essential oil. OLE is predominantly used to repel insects. The actual extracted chemical is called para-menthane-3,8-diol (PMD). One study showed that a eucalyptus-based repellent containing 30 percent PMD provided 97 percent protection for four hours. Learn about more plants that repel mosquitoes naturally.
Tea tree oil
Also known as melaleuca oil, tea tree oil hails from Australia. “It has been shown to contain antiseptic, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Travis Utter, DC, owner and physician at Preferred Injury Physicians. “Whenever you are about to venture into a buggy area, simply apply a drop of oil to all of your body’s pulse points, including your wrists and behind the ears and knees.” A study published in the Australian Journal of Entomology Studies shows it may be an effective insect repellent, particularly for mosquitoes and certain fly species.
If you spend a lot of time on your deck or outdoor patio in the summer months, plant marigolds in pots near open windows and doors, since they contain natural compounds found in insect repellent. Marigolds release a component called limonene that repels various insects including mosquitoes and whiteflies. (Which is why marigolds are good companion plants for tomatoes.) A 2019 study in PL0S One studied just how these bright flowers had such a noxious effect on insects with their smelly compound release.
Gardeners insist that bugs and basil don’t get along. A 2009 study found that essential oil made from basil is toxic to mosquito larvae. Another 2017 study found that in one test, the essential oil version of the strong-smelling herb was comparable to DEET. If you do get bitten, make sure you know these home remedies for mosquito bites.
Cinnamon oil has the ability to kill mosquito larvae, according to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Though the oil was only tested against the type of mosquito that carries yellow fever, researchers say it could prove similarly noxious to the larvae of other mosquito species.
Though lavender is appealing to humans, mosquitoes can’t bear the smell of this herb, says Amy Lawhorne, vice president of Mosquito Squad. Compared to DEET, one study found that lavender oil exhibited moderate to high repellency five minutes after application. Although the researchers stopped tracking repellency after 80 minutes, it was still warding off 45 percent of some insects.
Bring in the bats
This may seem a bit unconventional, but some species of bats are incredibly effective at pest control: They can consume 500 to 1,000 mosquitoes in a single hour, according to Bat Conservation International. Lawhorne says that bats can help lower pest populations and are also great for local ecosystems because they pollinate plants. Send out the “bat signal” by installing a bat house, which is similar to a birdhouse. Next, learn how to identify different types of bug bites you might encounter this summer.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Illnesses on the rise from mosquito, tick, and flea bites"
- Karen Thompson, former lead editor of InsectCop.net, an insect and pest control advice blog
- Current Biology: “Mosquitoes Use Vision to Associate Odor Plumes with Thermal Targets”
- Wizzie Brown, an entomologist and extension program specialist in integrated pest management with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, out of Texas A&M University
- Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics
- Tropical Medicine and International Health: “Effectiveness of citronella preparations in preventing mosquito bites: systematic review of controlled laboratory experimental studies”
- Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association: “Field evaluation of three plant-based insect repellents against malaria vectors in Vaca Diez Province, the Bolivian Amazon”
- Travis Utter, DC, owner and physician at Preferred Injury Physicians
- Australian Journal of Entomology: “Development of Melaleuca oils as effective natural‐based personal insect repellents”
- Nancy Troyano, Ph.D., BCE, entomologist and director of technical education and training at Rentokil North America
- PLoS One: “Companion planting with French marigolds protects tomato plants from glasshouse whiteflies through the emission of airborne limonene”
- Journal of Asia-Pacific Entomology: “Evaluation of the toxicity of different phytoextracts of Ocimum basilicum against Anopheles stephensi and Culex quinquefasciatus”
- Parasitology Research: “Mosquito repellent activity of volatile oils from selected aromatic plants”
- Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry: “Chemical Composition and Mosquito Larvicidal Activity of Essential Oils from Leaves of Different Cinnamomum osmophloeum Provenances”
- Amy Lawhorne, vice president of Mosquito Squad
- Scientia Agriculturae Bohemica: “Lavender, Eucalyptus, and Orange Essential Oils as Repellents Against Ixodes Ricinus Females”
- Bat Conservation International: “Bats, Artificial Roosts, and Mosquito Control”