by Kerr SJ

IMAGE Keeping bugs away is likely on the top of your list of priorities when you go out for an evening jog or leave for a weekend camping trip. Insect repellents with DEET (the common name for the chemical N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) work well, but you may worry that they may harm you or the environment. Read on to find out about natural products that can help keep the bugs away.

Before DEET

DEET-based insect repellents were not a choice until 1957. Before then, people relied on plants with compounds that repel insects. These compounds help the plants protect themselves from being eaten by insects. Some of these plants are still used today in resource-limited countries. People bruise plants or burn them to keep their homes and outdoor spaces free of insects.

Fighting Bugs with Plants and Oils

There are many plants and oils that have been used to keep insects away. Some of the most common ones are:


Citronella is one of the most well-known plant-based repellents. Products with it can protect you from insects for about 2 hours. Citronella candles can also help keep bugs away.

Lemon Eucalyptus Oil

Oil of lemon eucalyptus is a great way to repel mosquitoes, biting flies, and gnats. There are many brands of insect repellents with it.


Neem oil is made from the fruits and seeds of the neem tree. It could cause skin irritation. It may protect you, but there is not enough data to support using it.

Essential Oils

These oils are often used to repel insects. The best ones are thyme, cedar, peppermint, and clove. They may be work for 1 to 2 hours, but they could cause skin irritation.

Other Oils

Soybean oil, palm nut oil, coconut oil, and andiroba oil have all been used in repellents. Oils can also be used with other repellents by making them last longer.


Garlic has been used as a natural insect repellent, but the data for it is not strong. It may protect you when rubbed on the skin but eating it has not been shown to keep bugs away.

Are These Products Safer Than DEET?

The search for a natural insect repellent is based on the view that they may be safer than those made with DEET. But even these products can cause skin irritation. Some are also not recognized by the EPA.

DEET is not harmful to children older than 2 months of age. If your child is under 2 months of age, use mosquito netting to protect them. Pregnant and breastfeeding people should use DEET with care and choose products that have it in low amounts. Be sure to use the right amount and keep products away from the eyes, nose, and mouth.

Other Steps You Can Take

Here are some other steps you can take to keep bugs away:

  • Do not let water pool in outdoor spaces, such as rain gutters, or buckets
  • Change the water in bird baths, fountains, wading pools, and rain barrels each week
  • Cover gaps in doors and windows
  • Cover baby carriers with netting
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants when you are outdoors
  • Stay indoors at sunrise, sunset, and early evening


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

Environmental Protection Agency 


The College of Family Physicians of Canada 

Public Health Agency of Canada 


Choosing an insect repellent for your child. Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: Accessed October 25, 2021.

Insect bites and stings. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: Accessed October 25, 2021.

Mosquito avoidance. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Accessed October 25, 2021.

Repellents: protection against mosquitoes, ticks, and other arthropods. US Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: Accessed October 25, 2021.

West Nile virus: prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Accessed October 25, 2021.

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