When I’m out enjoying nature, it seems a little weird to spray synthetic chemicals all over my body. So I always take a look at the “natural” insect repellents when I’m buying bug spray. Some are legit, with EPA-registered ingredients that effectively repel bugs while being safe for skin. Others are made of nice-smelling herbs and wishful thinking.
When shopping for a natural mosquito repellent, oil of lemon eucalyptus is the ingredient you’re looking for. (It may also be labeled as p-menthane-3,8-diol, or PMD.) It’s in a lot of “natural” bug sprays, it’s EPA-registered, and studies show that it provides a similar level of protection as common DEET sprays. The only downside is that it’s not recommended for children under 3.
But make sure it’s the real stuff. “Lemon eucalyptus essential oil” may sound similar, but it’s not the stuff you want. If you aren’t sure, check for an EPA registration number in the label’s fine print.
Avoid sprays that just have botanical ingredients, like blends of essential oils, geraniol, and others. They might smell nice, but there isn’t any solid evidence that they actually work.
If you can’t find a natural repellent (or if you need to apply it on a young child), know that the synthetic ones aren’t actually bad for you. DEET is fine if you use it as directed (do spray it on your skin and clothes, don’t drink it). Picaridin may not appear under a “natural” label, but it’s similar to a chemical found in black pepper, and it’s also safe and effective at repelling mosquitoes. These two, along with oil of lemon eucalyptus, consistently beat other types of repellents in Consumer Reports’ testing. Personally, I go for any of the three, and don’t worry about whether the label says “natural” or not.
This article was originally published on April 9, 2019 and was updated June 2021 to reflect current style.
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