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Pros and Cons of Natural Insect Repellent

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Pros and Cons of Natural Insect Repellent


Summer is in full swing here in Moab, and so are the bugs. Unfortunately for many of us around the world, insects are simply a part of life during the warmer months. Unless you live in a bug-free paradise or never venture outside, you’ve probably encountered insects at one point or another. And during the summer, it often feels like flying or crawling pests descend upon us in swarms! Worst of all, they sting, bite, or are just plain irritating as they invade your personal space, and make it unpleasant to be outdoors. Also, along with itching and irritation, bites from an infected mosquito, tick, or other insect have the potential to cause illnesses like West Nile virus, Zika virus, and Lyme disease.

People are usually prone to mosquito, flea, tick, and fly bites of all types due to a combination of scent, light, heat, and humidity. Different species of insects also prefer bacteria and sweat. Others are attracted to carbon dioxide and certain body odors.

Of course, the most common solution to avoid these bugs is to use insect repellent. Used in various forms for centuries, insect repellents help keep the bugs away and lower your chances of getting insect-borne illnesses. However, today’s modern insect repellents often do this with synthetically-made, potentially dangerous chemicals such as DEET. Are they worth it? Are there other options? Thankfully, yes! Keep reading, and we’ll dig into why you should consider natural insect repellent, and the pros and cons of using one.

Types of Insect Repellents

Synthetic Based

Synthetic insect repellents contain laboratory produced chemicals that often mimic natural insect-repelling compounds found in plants but at a much higher concentration. They work as low grade pesticides to not only repel insects but kill them on contact. Two of the most common chemicals found in synthetic insect repellents include DEET (N-Diethyl-3-methylbenzamide) and Picaridin (2-hydroxyethyl).

In 1946, the U.S. Department of Agriculture invented DEET. It was initially developed for use by the U.S. Military in places with high rates of insect-borne illnesses such as Malaria. As it became known as an effective pest deterrent, it was approved for use by the public and hit the market in 1957. Since then, it has remained the most widely used insect repellent to date, with an estimated 30% of Americans using it regularly. However, its safety over the years has been called into question. Especially if inhaled or consumed, DEET can be dangerous for humans, pets, and the environment.

Picaridin, the second most used repellent, was developed by Bayer, who began to research the active ingredients in the 1980’s. Picaridin has been widely used in Europe and Australia since 1998, and was registered by the EPA for use in 2001. It is often marketed as an alternative to DEET.  Laboratory and field studies have shown similar and sometimes better efficacy with Picaridin over DEET products. Picaridin is similar to DEET in that it is slightly toxic in oral, dermal and eye exposures. No evidence suggests that Picaridin use is associated with the respiratory or nervous system affects that DEET is.

Plant Based

Unlike synthetic insect repellents, which contain a variety of man-made chemicals, natural insect repellents are primarily made from organic plant-based ingredients, and work by masking scents that bugs find attractive, effectively blocking their receptors. Some of the most common natural ingredients used in these repellents are essential oils like citronella, lemon eucalyptus, rose geranium, cedarwood, lemongrass, rosemary, and peppermint. These ingredients are not only safe and pleasant smelling for humans, but they also have a strong repelling effect on insects such as mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and flies. Moreover, some natural insect repellents also contain soothing ingredients like witch hazel and glycerin, which can help moisturize and alleviate skin irritation caused by bug bites.

Certain natural ingredients, like citrus oils, have been proven to be particularly effective against insects. For instance, lemon eucalyptus oil (which has been used since the 1940’s) is one of the more well-known natural repellents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have approved lemon eucalyptus oil as an effective ingredient in mosquito repellent. A 2014 showed that a mixture of 20-30 percent lemon eucalyptus oil provided more than 90-95 percent protection against mosquitoes for up to 3 hours. It has also been recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as safe and effective insect repellent.

Pros and Cons of Synthetic Based Insect Repellents


Proven Track Record of Effectiveness

Overall, chemical repellents like DEET and Picaridin offer long-lasting and wide-ranging protection, repelling mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and many fly species. They are some of the world's most widely used repellents and have been studied and used extensively for decades.

Longer Duration

Compared to natural repellents containing ingredients like lemon eucalyptus or citronella, synthetic insect repellents made from DEET or Picaridin may offer a longer duration of protection. Natural repellents typically require more frequent application to maintain their effectiveness. This aspect of synthetic repellents can be more convenient, especially in situations where continuous protection is necessary, such as during extended outdoor activities, as it needs to be applied less often.

More Protection Against Insect-Borne Diseases

Synthetic insect repellents may provide better protection against mosquito-borne diseases than their more natural counterparts. Chemical repellents containing DEET and Picaridin have been extensively tested and proven effective against a broad range of mosquito species, including those known to transmit diseases such as Malaria and Dengue, as well as ticks with Lyme disease. The effectiveness of organic plant-based options against disease-carrying mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects may vary, and reliance solely on natural repellents in high-risk areas could potentially increase the risk of infection.


Potentially Unsafe for Pregnant Women, Infants, Children, People with Sensitivities, and Animals

Synthetic insect repellents come with a set of concerns that raise questions about their overall impact on our health and the environment. One of the primary drawbacks is the potential for skin irritation in humans and animals. As we discussed early, many synthetic formulas contain DEET, Picaridin, or other chemical compounds that, although deemed safe in regulated amounts, can sometimes cause adverse reactions, particularly in individuals with sensitive skin. This can range from mild irritations to severe rashes, making the use of such repellents a matter of caution, especially for pets, infants, children, pregnant women, and those with pre-existing skin conditions. Accidentally breathing in or ingesting DEET has also, in rare instances, cause trouble breathing, vomiting, and seizures in some individuals.

Not as Environmentally Friendly

Beyond personal health, synthetic insect repellents pose a broader environmental challenge. The chemical components of these repellents don't just disappear; they can wash off into waterways, soil, and ecosystems, potentially disrupting wildlife and aquatic life. The accumulation of synthetic chemicals in the environment can lead to a decrease in biodiversity and the alteration of habitats, raising concerns about the long-term sustainability of these products.

Pros and Cons of Plant Based Insect Repellents


There are a variety of different benefits associated with using all-natural mosquito repellant. These include:

Safer for Pregnant Women, Infants, Children, People and with Sensitivities, and Animals

If you or someone you know has chemical allergies or sensitive skin, then using synthetic chemicals to control pests could cause them to have a reaction or break out into a rash. As natural insect repellents are derived from plant extracts or essential oils, they are generally considered less toxic and may have fewer adverse effects on human health, in particular for pregnant women, infants, and children.

Pets can also be sensitive to different chemicals. Since many people consider these to be part of the family, they are looking for ways to ensure they are protected from biting bugs and other health hazards. Using an all-natural insect repellent made especially for pets is a great way to achieve both goals.

Environmentally Friendly

Throughout history, humans have used a wide range of chemicals to help make their lives easier. Fertilizers and herbicides have been used to grow crops to keep people fed, and insect repellents have been found to be quite successful at keeping bugs from biting. However, if used incorrectly, these same chemicals can also cause environmental damage.

In an effort to reduce some of the negative impacts to the planet, many people are turning to all-natural methods in all aspects of life. If you are looking to keep pests from taking over your yard, then using a natural control system is in your best interest. You’ll be able to enjoy being outside and won’t have to worry about getting bitten or hurting the planet.

Naturally Keep Pests Away

Not only are all-natural mosquito repellents beneficial to your health and the environment, but they can also keep the pests away. Whether you are out hiking, fishing, backpacking, letting your kids play outside, using your backyard for a BBQ or have patio dining for guests, you want to make the moment as memorable as possible. You can do that by enjoying your outdoor adventures, and focusing on the good times and delicious food, not having to worry about how many times they are getting bitten.

Safe and Effective

The common misconception people have about natural insect repellents is that they must be less effective. They think that if a product is natural, the effects are not as instant or impressive as the synthetic insect repellents, so they feel they must compensate by using a larger amount for every application, or use it in combination with a chemical based product. However, that’s usually not the case.

While it’s true that not all natural insect repellents are created equal, and their effectiveness can vary depending on factors such as the type and concentration of active ingredients used, as well as the specific insects you’re trying to repel, the same can be said for many chemical based insect repellents on the market.


Shorter Duration

Compared to synthetic repellents containing ingredients like DEET or Picaridin, natural insect repellents may offer a shorter duration of protection. Natural repellents typically require more frequent application to maintain their effectiveness. This aspect can be inconvenient, especially in situations where continuous protection is necessary, such as during extended outdoor activities, as they have to be applied more often.

Limited Protection Against Insect-Borne Diseases

Natural insect repellents may provide limited protection against mosquito-borne diseases. Chemical repellents containing DEET and Picaridin have been extensively tested and proven effective against a broad range of mosquito species, including those known to transmit diseases such as Malaria and Dengue, as well as ticks with Lyme disease. The effectiveness of organic plant-based options against disease-carrying mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects may vary, and reliance solely on natural repellents in high-risk areas could potentially increase the risk of infection.

Choosing the Right Natural Insect Repellent

With so many natural insect repellents on the market, it can be overwhelming to choose the right one for your needs. To make an informed decision, it’s important to consider factors such as the type of insects you want to repel, the duration of protection, and the ingredients used in the repellent.

Factors to Consider

The type of insects you want to keep away largely depends on your location and the time of year. Generally, natural insect repellents can help keep mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and flies at bay. However, it’s worth noting that the effectiveness of these repellents can vary depending on the specific ingredients and their concentration. For example, lemon eucalyptus oil has been recommended by the EPA as a safe and effective insect repellent against mosquitos, while other natural ingredients like citronella and peppermint oil may be less effective against mosquitos, but more effective against biting flies and ticks.

Another important factor to consider when choosing a natural insect repellent is the duration of protection. Some repellents can offer up to 6 hours of protection, while others may only last 1-2 hours. When selecting a repellent, make sure to:

  • Read the label for ingredients and directions on how to use it.
  • Choose a product that provides the desired level of protection for your specific needs.
  • Reapply the repellent as needed to maintain its effectiveness throughout your outdoor activities.

Some general guidelines for choosing an effective natural insect repellant include:

  • Choose an insect repellant with around a 30 percent concentration of active ingredients.
  • It should contain essential oils that have been proven effective against a wide variety of biting insects (such as lemon eucalyptus, lemongrass, peppermint, rose geranium, rosemary, cedarwood, and citronella).

Tips for Using Natural Insect Repellant

For the safe and effective use of natural insect repellents, adhering to appropriate application and storage guidelines is crucial. Here are some tips to follow:

  • Always read the label of the repellent and follow the directions for use.
  • Apply the product to exposed skin and clothing for maximum protection.
  • Reapply the repellent as needed, especially after swimming, exercising, or sweating, to maintain its effectiveness.

In addition, store your natural insect repellent in cool dark place, out of direct sunlight to help preserve its potency and extend its shelf life. Abiding by these tips will help enable you to enjoy the outdoors without the concern of annoying insect bites.


As we’ve discussed in this article, when choosing an insect repellent, we're faced with a decision - opting for synthetic chemical-based repellents or embracing natural alternatives. This choice isn't just about effectiveness; it's also about considering the impact on our health and the environment. The transition towards natural insect repellents reflects a growing awareness of the importance of sustainable practices in our daily choices. By choosing natural options, consumers are not only safeguarding their health against insects and potential skin irritations but are also contributing to the preservation of the environment, endorsing a future where human health and nature coexist in harmony.

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