The pros and cons of essential oil-based bug repellents

Citronella candle Photo by ARENA Creative/Shutterstock.com

This article was originally published in the Early Summer 2017 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

In Canada, cottage season is also mosquito season. And we all know that the best way to prevent bites is to get rid of standing water and then remain indoors between May and Forever, lying in a mosquito-net-draped bed while not emitting any carbon dioxide. Or maybe we just need to use a good repellent. Hate DEET? Well, “many essential oils are repellents on one level or another,” says Jonathan Day, a professor of medical entomology with the University of Florida. The oils have evolved naturally in plants to protect them from feeding insects. Distilling these oils allows us to harness some of this nature-made protection.

Topical sprays

Good: These typically include citronella or a blend of citronella and other essential oils (such as geranium, eucalyptus, lemon, or peppermint). Citronella-based products don’t have nearly the track record of DEET-based sprays, but Environmental Protection Agency studies show that they can protect from bites for up to three hours. Decent for an afternoon in cottage country.

No good: “At high concentrations, essential oils can become skin irritants,” says Day. That’s why most repellents only contain small amounts. Even if you could get your hands on a litre of straight geranium oil, you’d never want to douse yourself with it.

Bug-repelling candles

Good: Sitting around the picnic table, enjoying a cocktail? Sure, light a candle. “Candles certainly won’t stop all bites, but they can reduce the number of bites,” says Cameron Webb, a clinical lecturer at the University of Sydney in Australia, who studies the effectiveness of insect repellents.

No good: “The problem with candles is that you don’t get good dispersal,” says Day. Any repel- lent effect is limited to a small radius, under wind-free conditions.

Infused wristbands, ankle bands, neck bands, etc.

Good: They look cool. Oh, wait, no they don’t. And slap bracelets are over. That said, wearing a wristband might reduce the number of bites to your wrist.

No good: Health Canada doesn’t recommend them. Bands don’t protect your whole arm—there is no “halo” effect, says Webb—or any other part of your body. And in one study out of Day’s research lab, the three wristbands tested protected the wearer for a grand total of zero minutes.