Essential Oils for Pest Control

Child in a field of herbs with insects

Spring is here and the weather just may start cooperating soon.  That means we can finally get rid of this cabin fever and start exploring the great outdoors.  It also means all the little buggers of the world will have the same idea.  They’ll be showing us, rather efficiently, why they are called pests.  Now is the perfect time to talk about insect and pest control using natural products, especially essential oils.

Natural or Traditional Bug Sprays? 

Just mentioning the word DEET is enough to make many of our readers gag. DEET is a chemical, synthetic insect repellent found in most traditional bug sprays.  It ranges from 5% up to 98% concentrations and is found in products like Deep Woods Off.

Here’s the thing.  If you want to avoid DEET, do it.  I would rather us have an honest discussion about it’s real risks and how to BEST use it, if you should choose to.

Link to infographic about essential oils for pest control

DEET is safe. There are plenty of studies, done across multiple countries that show this.  As long as you apply it correctly, using moderate concentrations, on an intermittent basis (i.e. not every single day of your life without break), you will have no problems in the short term or long term.  If you decide you’d like to drink it, you’re going to have a bad time. It is not toxic unless you ingest a gallon or so, but even then, you’ll have lots of horrible side effects before it could possibly kill you.  Nice and pretty picture, huh?

The reason I like to say this is because there are times where we may need the big guns.  If Zika virus breaks out again, don’t reach for your essential oil spray, but instead DEET.  Reason being, is there is evidence that even the best natural sprays will not help protect you like deet will.

If you are to use DEET-based insect repellent, know that concentrations between 15% and 30% are ideal. Most protection at this concentration can last upwards of 8 hours. Anything more is overkill.  Anything less will require frequent reapplications. Never put any concentration of DEET on children under 2 months old.

When applying ANY insect repellent, be sure to follow these rules:

  1. Cover up!  We wear less in the summer due to the heat and humidity, but the best way to prevent bites is to wear long sleeves, pants, and hats where appropriate.
  2. Only apply to exposed skin or clothing - never spray it beneath clothing.
  3. Just spray enough to cover.  Saturating the area won’t help you more than a light misting.
  4. Never put this into broken skin or on mucosal membranes.  No cuts, wounds, irritated skin, recently shaved faces, inside of mouths, ears, or in the eyes.
  5. For sensitive areas, such as your face or even the bodies and faces of children, spray the repellent onto your hands first and rub on like a sunscreen.  
  6. Keep bug sprays off of the hands as they often spend time in our mouths.  This goes double for kids. Wash your hands thoroughly after applying. Don’t ingest insect repellents and you will be a happier person.
  7. When coming inside, wash up.  Wash your hands and covered areas as soon as possible. Shower up. Change your clothes and wash all treated clothes together.

Essential Oils For The Win

Essential oils are a great option for not only keeping insects away when you are outside but also at keeping all pests from coming into your house.

We discussed misinformation surrounding essential oils in a recent rant. The same rules apply when using essential oils, reviewed here for your convenience:

  • Essential oils MUST always be diluted, either in water or in a carrier oil like almond, grapeseed, or jojoba oil.
  • Essential oils must NEVER be taken internally, despite all the misinformation out there.  They are extremely caustic compounds that can cause serious damage to people and pets alike.
  • Super young babies (less than 6 months old) should NOT have essential oils applied, even diluted.  Their skin is VERY sensitive. Physical barriers are the best for the little bubbas.  Unless, of course, your pediatrician gives the green light.
  • Cats don't do well with essential oils.  Cedarwood and citrus oils should be avoided.  Small amounts sprayed topically occasionally are PROBABLY ok, but it's best to use traditional options or discuss with your vet before using essential oils.

Let’s discuss some of the more commonly used essential oils, in order of most successful to least:

Geranium:  Rose geranium is a successful repellent for ticks.  It’s safe on kids and pets.

Cedarwood:  Cedarwood is toxic to ticks.  It’s safe on kids and dogs.

Peppermint:  Mint essential oils, including spearmint, is a strong repellant to big and small pests.  Mice, spiders, ants, fleas, and more all hate the mint smells.

CitronellaThe most famous essential oil for insect repellants. It has been registered as an official repellent AND a non-toxic biopesticide since after World War 2.  

Citronella oil is extracted from citronella grass (Cymbopogon nardus), a close relative of the more familiar culinary lemongrass, Cymbopogon citratus.  Neither plant should be confused with Pelargonium citrosum, an unrelated plant often mistakenly called "mosquito plant". 

Citronella oil can be found in almost all commercially available insect repellent products, from sprays to candles, and beyond.

Eucalyptus:  Eucalyptus is a common flea, tick, and mosquito repellant.  It is toxic to animals, so it should be used sparingly, if at all, directly onto animals.  Some people will use diluted eucalyptus sprays around the house or around pet areas to help deter fleas.

Lavender:  Not only does it have a soothing, almost calming effect on us, it is also a potent insect and pest repellent.  There is some sparse data that has shown lavender oil can prevent tick eggs from hatching. It is ok on young kids and animals (diluted, of course).

Soybean oil:  Soybean oil isn’t technically an essential oil, but it is an ingredient used with many essential oil blends in natural insect sprays.  Soybean oil doesn’t have direct repellent activity, but instead makes essential oils last a bit longer.

Other essential oils:  Some less potent options that you may find in natural bug sprays and the like are Rosemary, Basil, Thyme, garlic oil, and 2-undacanone (an essential oil from tomato plants).  Garlic oil has insecticide action, so a diluted formula can be sprayed directly onto plants to help keep bugs away.

DIY and Commercial Natural Insect Repellent

Those of us who want to use natural insect repellents have two options.  The first is to buy one of the many commercial products available, and the second is to make our own.  To understand how to use and make a natural insect repellent, we should understand the properties of the ingredients first.  

First, we must use the correct ingredients.  When looking for a tick repellent, make sure you see geranium and cedarwood as some of the main ingredients. If these are combined with other essential oils as listed above, you can have a pretty useful mosquito and tick repellent.

Secondly, we have to understand that essential oils are, well, oils.  This means that they will not mix well with the water bases that are often used.  We must, then, shake natural insect repellents for a good 10-20 seconds prior to use.  Get aggressive with this; mix it up well.

Besides straight water, witch hazel is often used.  Witch hazel dries quickly, mixes well with oils, and our witch hazel of choice has geranium in it, adding to the anti-insect benefits.  Some sprays can use carrier oil for the base, which is a non-reactive, safe to apply oil like almond, jojoba, or grapeseed oil. These dilute the essential oils and are safe for use topically.

Natural Insect repellents must be reapplied MUCH more frequently than traditional DEET containing products.  Reapply every 45 minutes to an hour to get the best protection. 

Our Picks for Natural Insect Repellents

  • Bug Away by Platte Clove Essentials - made a few miles from our store.  Great formula, gives awesome protection. We’ve had customers use it in Costa Rica successfully!
  • Ticked Off - another local flea, tick, and mosquito spray

DIY Bug Spray Recipe

The formula for making an essential oil spray is generally the same regardless of the purpose.  it's usually 5-40 drops of the essential oil diluted in about 1-2 ounces of carrier oil or water.

In this situation, we use witch hazel for its quick drying effects and added geranium. The final concentration of the DIY spray should be 15-40 drops total of Essential Oil(s) per 2 ounces of spray.  If you are using a combination of different oils, make sure you don’t go over that limit or you may get skin irritation from the essential oils.

What You’ll Need:

Directions:

  1.     Add essential oil to your bottle.
  2.     Add the witch hazel
  3.     Top off your bottle with water.
  4.     Put on spray cap and shake the bottle well.
  5.     Label this!  You don't want to confuse your bug spray for window cleaner and vice versa...  
  6.     Spray on skin, clothing, or surfaces.

A Note About Ticks

We’ve ranted about Lyme Disease in the past and have touched on this before, but it bears repeating.  

Spray all you want, but you still may get a tick bite.  This is because repellents will only do so much with ticks.  Ticks aren’t necessarily coming to us; we’re going through their turf and they latch on to us.  Plus, ticks are all around.  You don’t have to go deep into the woods. Playing in the grass near your house or even gardening on a deck can result in ticks and tick bites.

Make sure you do frequent tick checks throughout the day if outside.  Here’s a funny video going through the steps of a proper tick check. Check before you come inside.  Try to keep outside clothes from “contaminating” your tick-free zone inside your house.

Remember, if you do find a tick, it doesn’t mean you’ll get Lyme’s disease.  Read our rant on the subject to prepare yourself, but know a short course of antibiotics will be safe and is usually very effective at protecting from Lyme’s.

Pest Control At The House

Here are some strategies for keeping pests out of your house using essential oils:

Ants and Spiders:  Peppermint is the big one to use, but you can also use citrus oils (lemon or orange), lavender, citronella, and cedarwood.  Apply by spraying in a line across window and door seals for best protection.

Fleas:  Peppermint, lavender, citronella (lemongrass) in a combination sprayed around the house, the floors, around animal bedding, and animal living space can help keep these guys at bay.

Mice:  Peppermint oil is just too strong for them. Place 5 drops on a cotton ball, then place the cotton balls by doorways, windows, and heat vents.  Make a peppermint spray and spray around windows, small cracks, and doors.

Centipedes:  Tea tree oil is toxic to centipedes. Spray a dilution to door frames, windows, small cracks, and basement doors.

Bees & wasps:  Don’t get cocky.  Use proper bee removal spray if you are trying to take down a hive.

Repeating this treatment every 3 days is probably more than enough.  Since peppermint is such a strong deterrent, why not just grow some mint plant in your house?  Having mint plants throughout your house can definitely help keep small pests away. Then you can also make a mojito.  We’re doing recipes here, right?

Here’s my recipe for mojitos:

Neal’s Mojito Magic

  • 6 fresh mint leaves
  • ¼ of a lime, cut into wedges
  • 1 shot simple syrup
  • 1-1.5 shot of white rum
  • 1 strawberry, cut into slices
  • Club soda
  • Ice
  1. Muddle the mint, leaves, and strawberry in a glass
  2. Add the simple syrup and muddle some more
  3. Add the rum and ice
  4. Top off with club soda

This is how I spend my vacations away from work.  If you don’t get rid of spiders with your peppermint plants, at least you’ll be too drunk to care.  

Insect Repellent Tall Tales

There are lots of old wives’ tales centering around insect repellent.  For almost all of these, there is no evidence whatsoever to substantiate their use, but there are plenty of anecdotes and urban legends that keep people at it.

Some people want to take a B vitamin containing B1, or thiamine.  The belief is that you excrete it through the skin, making you less savory for the little buggers. The only thing taking synthetic thiamine will do is make your urine discolored and stinky. Along the same lines, people increase their garlic intake thinking they’ll ward off mosquitos.  Garlic oil can be used in essential oil blends or as a natural pesticide, but taking it internally won’t make you less scrumptious to anyone except vampires.

A few years back at a family barbecue, a group of us had dryer sheets on our heads and tucked into our shirts because the mosquitos were so bad.  Listerine, Lemon Joy dish soap, and plain fragrance dryer sheets have been promoted to keep mosquitos away, but all they do is make us nice smelling, freshly bitten, itchy people.

If this has worked for you in the past, keep at it.  For someone looking for a solution, it’s best to just use natural or traditional bug sprays.

Ready For The Great Outdoors

Essential oils are a great alternative to traditional pest repellents and are safe when used correctly.  Always dilute essential oils, use care around small children and pets, and frequently reapply to get the best protection.

I hope you all get to spend lots of fun in the sun this year.  Go camping, hiking, garden, play sports, go swimming - do it all!  When you do, I hope you’ll be protected using either natural or traditional insect repellents - whatever you choose.

Just trying to keep it real... 

Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth

neal@woodstockvitamins.com

About Dr. Neal Smoller

Dr. Neal Smoller is a holistic pharmacist, supplement expert, and founder of Woodstock Vitamins. Dr. Neal’s mission is to challenge the natural products industry, redefining holistic care and setting the standard for supplement quality. His methods and products are backed by real science, and with them, he builds and supports his customers’ lifelong wellness strategies.

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