I found out early on in parenthood that my oldest daughter was irresistible to mosquitos. I had to slather her in bug spray anytime we went outside.
We also lived in a house that sat in the middle of the woods — a great place to get ticks! But I’ve always hated the idea of coating myself or my kids in chemicals just to keep bugs away.
So I decided to make a homemade natural bug spray. The recipe I came up with is excellent for keeping ticks away and works great for mosquitoes and flies too. It also smells nice!
Why I Avoid Deet
According to Dr. Abou Donia, a Duke University Medical Center pharmacologist, “frequent and prolonged applications of DEET cause neurons to die in regions of the brain that control muscle movement, learning, memory, and concentration”.
Dr. Donia also notes that in rat studies the use of DEET not only caused the death of brain cells but also caused damage and degeneration to the brain cells that lived.
While Dr. Donia’s concerns are specifically for routine use of DEET containing products, I typically avoid any amount of chemicals that may cause harm if possible.
Natural Ingredients to Keep Bugs (Even Ticks!) Away
Luckily there are a number of ways to keep bugs away naturally. In this recipe I focus on two main ingredients:
- Essential oils
Vinegar helps distribute the essential oils through the mixture since water and oil don’t mix on their own. You could use another ingredient for this function like witch hazel or alcohol, but the vinegar is my favorite. The reason is that vinegar also helps keep ticks away.
This is an old folk remedy that I’ve known about for years, but while updating this post I looked for some science to back it up.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much data on using vinegar to deter ticks. However, I feel like it has worked for me (as have many homesteaders!), and it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Geranium is also an amazing oil to repel ticks. In fact, if that’s the only oil you had, it would probably work fairly well in keeping most bugs away.
Homemade Bug Spray
- 15 drops Geranium (AKA geranium bourbon or rose geranium)
- 15 drops Citronella
- 15 drops Lavender EO
- 10 drops Lemon eucalyptus
- 5 drops Lemongrass (for 2+) or Catnip
- 2 oz ACV
- 2oz distilled water
- Mix all ingredients in a 4 oz opaque spray bottle.
- Apply liberally to exposed skin and clothing before going outside.
I tend to put it mostly on clothing instead of skin since the concentration is a bit higher than I would normally use on my skin. Always check with your doctor if this is safe for you and your family.
Does This Natural Bug Spray Work?
This natural bug spray actually works really well. I also really like that it smells nice. The key with a natural bug spray is to use it liberally (especially on your clothes) and often throughout the night.
Note that I wouldn’t use it with reckless abandon (I talk more about that below) but for a nighttime BBQ or weekend hike, use as much as you need.
How to Store Homemade Bug Spray
I use 4oz amber or blue glass jars with spray tops. It’s best to use glass because essential oils can degrade plastic (though that’s usually undiluted EOs).
I also like these blue glass bottles because they keep the sunlight out which is important for preserving the essential oils.
None of the essential oils in this recipe are phototoxic, meaning they are safe to apply to the skin when in the sun (or planning to be).
Is This Recipe Safe for Kids and Pregnant/Nursing Women?
All of the essential oils in this recipe are safe for babies, kids, and pregnant or nursing women except for lemongrass. Lemongrass may not be safe for pregnant women and should not be used on children under 2 years old (use catnip or omit for these groups).
That being said, this recipe (and most bug spray recipes) are a higher concentration than is recommended for other products that you would put on your skin often (like lotion).
For occasional use when going on a hike or to the lake it’s fine.
When my family needs to use bug spray repeatedly throughout the day and for days on end I try to get the spray mostly on clothes and hair.
You could also cut the essential oils in half for a milder bug spray (though it may not work as well).
Short on Time or Don’t Want to Buy all those EOs?
I feel you. Here’s another option that is 100% nontoxic and 100% awesome. Pronounce bug spray is handcrafted by Jess of Scratch Mommy. I love her products and think you will too!
What do you use to keep bugs away?