It’s no secret that DEET has been the go-to insect repellent ingredient for more than half a century. It’s effective against ticks and mosquitoes, but it comes with a price: It’s been identified as a neurotoxin and can cause skin reactions, eye irritation, headaches, lethargy, and even seizures. It’s especially problematic for kids, who can easily get the repellent on their hands and into their mouths.
Although repellents made with herbs and essential oils tend to work for shorter periods of time, they’re safer than DEET and can be effective for staving off insects. Citronella, cedar, lemongrass, lemon-eucalyptus, and rosemary oils work well, with higher concentrations offering better protection.
Natural insect repellents are widely available. You can also make your own by adding a few drops of essential oil to a vegetable oil. (Test it on a small area of skin first; dilutions of 20 to 50 percent are more effective for keeping away insects but can irritate the skin.)
Consider these essential oils for DEET-free bug protection.
Tea tree is a natural insect repellent. And it can help reduce itching if a bite does occur.
Citronella keeps ticks, houseflies, and mosquitoes at bay. It’s often found in repellent candles for outdoor use.
Lemon eucalyptus and rose geranium are effective against mosquitoes. They also deter sandflies, ticks, and midges.
Pennyroyal fends off many biting insects, including chiggers, fleas, flies, gnats, mosquitoes, and ticks.
Patchouli and neem will help keep mosquitoes away.
Basil and thyme are among many other herbal oils that appear to work well.
Lavender at a 30 percent dilution can repel ticks.
Aromatherapy by Kathi Keville and Mindy Green ($19.95, Crossing Press, 2009)
Naturally Bug-Free: 75 Nontoxic Recipes for Repelling Mosquitoes, Ticks, Fleas, Ants, Moths & Other Pesky Insects by Stephanie L. Tourles ($10.95, Storey Publishing, 2016)
“Popular Insect Repellent Deet Is Neurotoxic,” www.ScienceDaily.com, 8/6/09
“Researchers Compare ‘Natural’ Mosquito Repellents to DEET,” Entomological Society of America, 10/28/15