Us midwesterners wait SO long for spring and summer to finally arrive. The only downside…THE BUGS! Especially here in Wisconsin where it can get unbearably humid and muggy. Thankfully there are organic options for repellants and ways to ward off bugs naturally.
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This post covers:
- The Problem with DEET-Based Bug Sprays & Ingredients to Avoid
- Best Natural DEET-Free Bug Spray Brands (Plus Plants & Essential Oils That Fight Off Bugs Naturally)
- How to Make Your Own DIY Homemade Bug Spray
- BONUS: Natural Products to Help Soothe Itchy Bug Bites
The Problem with DEET-Based Bug Sprays
What’s wrong with conventional insect repellents in the first place? 🤔 Most contain the active ingredient DEET (N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide, also called diethyltoluamide). It doesn’t kill bugs, but it works by interacting with insect’s nervous systems and making it hard for them to smell human sweat and blood 🦟
However, it is a pesticide! ☣️ DEET was developed in the 1940s for the military. According to the EPA, it’s classified as Toxicity Category III (“slightly toxic”) for humans when used properly.
BUT…what does “used properly” mean? There is a fine print that most people don’t know about. It includes some stipulations like avoiding application on children’s hands, applying very minimally and NOT under clothing, washing treated clothes before wearing again, and washing off the body immediately when you return indoors. Most people probably don’t do these and apply it liberally with no concern! It also has a really high skin absorption rate.
Other Ingredients to Avoid in Conventional Bug Sprays
The majority of brands such as Off!, Repel, and Cutter use DEET in their formulas. Sometimes they might have DEET-free formulas, but those still contain insecticides like prallethrin, permethrin, or cyfluthrin which have their own concerns. Aside from that, they tend to include inactive ingredients that I usually avoid such as synthetic fragrances, petroleum, butane, and propane.
On top of that, many use proprietary ingredients and don’t even disclose their full ingredient lists which is always suspicious in my opinion! You might see on the label a percentage breakdown such as 15% DEET, 85% Other Ingredients and that’s it. So much for transparency 🙄
I have also noticed tons of greenwashing where brands will have “plant-based” or “botanical” versions of their bug sprays, yet still, use questionable ingredients. So, heads up! It’s the wild west out there.
Final Thoughts About DEET & Chemical Bug Spray Usage…
At the end of the day, I think you have to decide what’s best for your situation!
I personally will choose a natural bug spray for everyday situations such as sitting on the patio, hiking, going for a walk, etc. when the bugs are annoying but not a huge threat.
However, if you are someone that frequents heavily-infested areas such as the deep woods, maybe it’s smart to use something stronger. In my opinion, the occasional use of a conventional bug spray is not as bad as something such as Lyme disease!
So if I *were* to use a stronger chemical bug spray, it would be picaridin-based such as this one. Picaridin has been shown to work similarly to DEET but is a bit safer.
Related post: “Your Guide to Choosing Non-Toxic Mineral Sunscreen (That Works!)”
Best Natural DEET-Free Bug Spray Brands (Do They Work?)
Now, I am not gonna lie to you. DEET and pesticides are powerful, and nothing is *really* going to work as well when it comes to keeping bugs away. The natural alternatives that I suggest below DO help prevent bug bites, but please don’t expect them to perform like strong DEET-based insect sprays. Just keepin’ it real! I personally don’t mind the trade-off knowing that I am using less harmful chemicals on my body.
Plants & Essential Oils That Fight Off Bugs Naturally
What’s really cool is there are lots of plants, herbs, and essential oils that deter bugs naturally, especially when they are used synergistically! Even remnants of grass beds from 200,000 years ago in Africa have been discovered to use aromatic leaves as insect repellents. This is because most plants contain compounds that stop attacks from plant-eating insects. For instance:
- Citronella and lemongrass mask the scents that attract bugs to humans
- Citronella has been registered as an insect repellent since the 1940s and has been shown to be effective dose-for-dose as DEET!
- Ticks and bugs despise geraniol, the active ingredient in geranium oil
- Lemongrass has been proven to fight off mosquitoes that carry yellow fever, Zika, and West Nile viruses
- Thyme contains monoterpenes which act as mosquito repellents
- Peppermint oil has been shown to provide mosquito protection
If you’re interested, the Farmers’ Almanac has a helpful list of what to plant in your yard to help keep bugs away.
Now that you’ve learned a little bit more about how plants can keep bugs away, here are some of my favorite tried and true organic insect sprays!
Badger Organic Anti-Bug Spray [$10-12]
NOTES: Best budget-friendly option, contains citronella, mild cedarwood/citrus/minty smell, check with doctor before using on infants and toddlers
This one is a spray that comes in an aluminum bottle. It has ten simple ingredients and is certified organic! Although it’s a spray, it can feel slightly oily when you apply it (contains soybean and castor oils) so it might require some rubbing in. Badger also got this lab-tested so it’s been determined to be effective! I really do feel like it works well and prevents me from getting too many bug bites.
Badger also makes an Anti-Bug Balm that comes in a metal tin. You can usually find this brand at health food stores like Whole Foods or Fresh Thyme.
NOTES: Least sticky/oily, contains citronella, mild geranium/citronella scent, can be used on dogs, use with caution on infants or if pregnant
This one also performs great for me. I LOVE how fine the mist is on this one, and it’s not sticky or oily at all. It smells sooooo pleasant, too, without being overpowering! It’s nice that I don’t feel the need to shower or wash my clothes after applying it. Like, you really don’t feel like you’re wearing bug spray at all, but you still get the protection!
You can use code ORGANICALLYBECCA for a discount on your first Erin’s Faces order.
NOTES: Most powerful with the highest citronella concentration, stronger citronella smell, check with doctor before using on infants
This is a force to be reckoned with. It’s made with essential oils citronella, lemongrass, and clove and actually contains a higher amount of citronella compared to most natural bug sprays. This one has a whopping 10%!
Not only that, but Kinfield uses a unique strain of Indonesian citronella which they put through independent testing and is supposed to be more effective than others. So I do feel like it’s pretty powerful stuff and keeps me from getting eaten alive by mosquitoes.
Because of the high citronella content, it does have a kinda strong bug spray smell. I don’t mind it, but it’s good to be aware of if you’re sensitive to stronger smells.
The formula also contains no oils or anything greasy (the base is alcohol). So it absorbs nicely without leaving a residue or being sticky 👍 You can also get this in a travel-friendly wipe form.
Also available here at Credo.
NOTES: Best for sensitive skin, subtle smell with rosemary and thyme, do not use if pregnant/nursing or on children under 2 years old
This one is unique because it’s a balm with a base of organic coconut oil, candelilla wax, and shea butter. So it basically doubles as a moisturizing body balm when you apply it. And the zero waste, eco-friendly paper tube packaging is a major plus ♻️
Kosmatology formulates all their products (by a mom pharmacist!) while keeping sensitive skin in mind, so they don’t use common allergens that can cause irritation. So if you want a gentler option, this would be my recommendation!
The only downside is that the smell is on the weaker side so I don’t feel like it repels quite as well as the other options in this post. But it’s still one I like and use myself!
You can use code ORGANICALLYBECCA for a discount on your Kosmatology order.
How to Make Your Own DIY Homemade Bug Spray
If you want to save some money and already have some of these ingredients on hand, you can make your own DIY homemade insect repellent! My friend Kelsey from Green Willow Homestead was gracious enough to share her own DIY recipe that she swears by (which can be found in her Holistic Home ebook).
- 1 ½ cups witch hazel
- ½ cup apple cider vinegar (strain out the mother)
- 40 drops lemongrass essential oil
Just add all of the ingredients to a 16 oz. glass spray bottle and shake it before each use. Avoid your eyes and mouth. Reapply hourly or as needed!
I personally like Mountain Rose Herbs essentials oils! They’re pure, responsibly sourced, and certified organic.
BONUS: Natural Products to Help Soothe Itchy Bug Bites
Because pesky bites happen! Here are some products you can use to calm itchy bite marks.
- Badger After Bug Balm: You can swipe this balm over bite marks; it uses cooling menthol and 10% active organic colloidal oatmeal which is soothing. You can use code BECCA10 for a discount at EarthHero.
- Bug Bite Thing Suction Tool: I haven’t tried this myself but some of my friends swear by it! Removes insect venom, saliva, and other irritants left under the skin.
- CV Skinlabs Rescue & Relief Spray: This is essentially aloe vera taken to the next level with added skin-loving ingredients! It’s a thin, slightly milky spray that dries quickly and can be used for instant cooling relief 🥒
Thank you so much for reading this post. You can drop any questions in the comment section. Now I hope you’re ready to enjoy the warmer months, naturally, sans annoying bugs! 🕷