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Every year as warmer weather approaches, I make several homemade products for summer including my homemade sunscreen and these homemade bug spray recipes.
I don’t use sunscreen often because it limits vitamin D production and I prefer to eat my sunscreen instead. This homemade insect repellent spray recipe, on the other hand, gets daily use where we live. (Unfortunately!)
Why Homemade Bug Spray?
At my house, we joke about mosquitoes being the size of birds, and they certainly do seem to come in flocks! Keeping bugs away with a good mosquito repellent is a top priority, especially with small children who are prone to scratching mosquito bites.
What’s the Deal with DEET?
While I am serious about avoiding bug bites, I don’t want to use nasty chemicals like DEET to do it. DEET is present in many commercial insect repellents and has mixed results when it comes to safety.
The EPA weighed in on DEET in 1998 and again in 2014, saying “it does not present a health concern to the general population, including children.” Looking at their long list of warnings and precautions, I’ll stick with my natural bug spray.
As Heather of Mommypotamus explains:
“N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET) is the usual go-to for commercial bug spray. It’s incredibly controversial, and for good reason…. Dr. Abou Donia, a Duke University pharmacologist, found that “rats treated with an average human dose of DEET (40 mg/kg body weight) performed far worse than control rats when challenged with physical tasks requiring muscle control, strength and coordination.”
In the same study, Dr. Abou Donia found that DEET caused “neurons to die in regions of the brain that control muscle movement, learning, memory and concentration.” The pharmacologist says that children are at a higher risk for brain changes after DEET exposure because their skin absorbs it more readily.
It’s also interesting to note that as of 2018 the EPA has yet to complete an endocrine disruptor screening on DEET, so that data is still unknown.
Natural Alternatives to DEET
This recipe takes just seconds to mix up and can be varied based on what you have available. I’ve included several variations so you can try whichever one you have the ingredients for.
5-Minute Essential Oil Bug Spray Recipe
If you have the ingredients to make it, this is the best bug spray recipe I’ve found. This recipe uses essential oils, which are highly effective for natural bug protection.
There are some concerns about putting these directly on the skin, especially on children. I prefer to use this recipe on clothing or gear instead of directly on the skin.
Any combination of these essential oils will work: citronella, clove, lemongrass, rosemary, tea tree, cajeput, eucalyptus, cedar, catnip, geranium, lavender, mint.
All of those have insect and mosquito-repelling properties, and I’ve included the mixture I use below. For this recipe I use 100 drops of essential oil total with a mixture of various oils. If you don’t have one, you can leave it out or use a mixture of the others in its place.
To save time, I’ve also just used a pre-mixed kid-safe essential oil blend formulated to repel insects in place of the other oils in the recipe below. If you’d rather not DIY, Badger and Revive also make a great natural bug spray with essential oils.
Homemade Bug Spray Recipe
- Glass spray bottle
- In a glass spray bottle, combine the essential oils.
- Add the vodka or rubbing alcohol and shake well to combine.
- Pour in the witch hazel and shake again to combine.
- Add the vegetable glycerin if using. It isn’t necessary, but it does help everything stay combined.
- Add the water and shake again.
- Shake before each use as the oils and water will naturally separate over time.
I keep a bottle of this bug spray by the back door for easy application. I also pack one in our first aid kit when camping or hiking. I find it’s also handy to carry this homemade anti-itch cream in case of the random bug bite!
DIY Bug Spray Recipe Variations
Natural bug sprays can also be made without essential oil using dried herbs and witch hazel or vinegar. This recipe is typically considerably less expensive, though it is also not as potent as the recipe above.
Fresh or Dried Herbs Bug Spray Ingredients
- Distilled water
- Witch hazel or rubbing alcohol
- Dried herbs: peppermint, spearmint, citronella, lemongrass, catnip, lavender, etc. I recommend using at least one herb from the mint family.
Fresh or Dried Herbs Bug Spray Instructions
- Boil 1 cup of water and add 3-4 tablespoons of dried herbs total in any combination from the above. I use 1 tablespoon each of peppermint, spearmint, catnip and lavender, and also throw in a couple of dried cloves.
- Mix well, cover and let cool (covering is important to keep the volatile oils in!)
- Strain herbs out and mix water with 1 cup of witch hazel or rubbing alcohol. Store in a spray bottle in a cool place. We often keep ours in the fridge for an extra cooling spray.
- Use as needed. Added bonus: it smells great and is very refreshing to the skin.
TIP: If you have the time and want to make a stronger version of this recipe, prepare the herbs in an alcohol mixture as a tincture instead, and use this directly as a spray after straining out the herbs.
Vinegar Tick and Insect Repellent Recipe
Fair warning: this stuff stinks when it is wet, though the smell disappears as it dries. It works incredibly well though, and this is the one I use when I’m going to be in the deep woods or other tick-infested areas.
It is based on a recipe that was supposedly used by thieves during the Black Plague to keep from getting sick. They used it internally and externally to avoid catching the disease and to keep the flies and other pests away. According to legend, it worked and they survived… but it definitely makes a great insect repellent these days!
This recipe is also very inexpensive to make and you probably already have the ingredients in your kitchen.
Vinegar of the Four Thieves Insect Repellent Ingredients
- 1 32-oz bottle of apple cider vinegar
- 2 TBSP each of dried sage, rosemary, lavender, thyme, and mint
- Quart-size or larger glass jar with airtight lid
Vinegar of the Four Thieves Insect Repellent Instructions
- Put the vinegar and dried herbs into large glass jar.
- Seal tightly and store on counter or place you will see it daily. Shake well each day for 2-3 weeks.
- After 2-3 weeks, strain the herbs out and store in spray bottles or tincture bottles, preferably in fridge.
- To use on skin, dilute to half with water in a spray bottle and use as needed.
- Use whenever you need serious bug control!
Note: This mixture is very strong and has antiviral and antibacterial properties. It can also be used as a tincture for any illness. For adults, dose is 1 tablespoon in water several times a day. For kids over two, the dose is 1 teaspoon in water several times a day.
Other Simple Insect-Repelling Ideas
- Use a non-toxic, plastic-free insect-repelling band like these, which is easier to use on children and very effective.
- Add vanilla extract to either of the above recipes, or just rub on the skin. You can also mix vanilla with witch hazel and water for a spray version.
- Plant insect-repelling herbs in your yard. I grow lavender, thyme, mint, and citronella near our patio and we use these fresh plants as bug repellent in a pinch.
- Rub lavender flowers or lavender oil on your skin, especially on hot parts of body (neck, underarms, behind ears, etc.) to repel insects.
- Rub fresh or dried leaves of anything in the mint family all over skin to repel insects (peppermint, spearmint, catnip, pennyroyal, etc. or citronella, lemongrass, etc.). Basil is also said to repel mosquitoes and I’ve used fresh basil leaves in the garden with great success before.
Store-Bought Natural Insect Repellent Options
There are now also some good natural insect repellent options available to purchase if you don’t have all of the ingredients on hand or want a simpler solution. Some of the ones that I have personally tried and liked are:
I definitely recommend spot-testing for allergic reactions anytime you’re using a new product on skin, whether it’s natural or not.
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What are your tricks for keeping bugs at bay? Which do you think is worse… the insects or the chemicals in most repellents?