Whilst planning a holiday in a hotel wedged between a lagoon and the ocean, and aware that this year's local weather has been a boon to a sudden invasion of small flying insects including flies and mosquitoes, I decided it was time to find a natural repellent I could make myself, with natural (read non-toxic) ingredients. My sister and her friend, both of whom have small children, have been successfully making their own for a while. Time to test my own! The lagoon would be the ideal place to see whether or not it was working.
Before jumping right in, I did some research on this, as the original recipe includes rosemary. Since I do not have the luxury of owning a large rosemary plant from which to concoct my own infusion, the best alternative would be the use of rosemary essential oil (which I already have at home), but I was unsure how this might affect my hormonal levels (it can affect oestrogen levels) especially with repeated daily use. Too much of a good thing can be bad, and a holiday is not the best time to go messing with such things.
Plants that naturally repel insects
In fact, there are many plants which are reported to keep mosquitoes and bugs at bay. Among these you have geranium, cedar wood, lavender, tea tree, peppermint, basil and lemongrass - in fact the entire family of lemongrass Cymbopogon appear to repel insects -, as well as the afore mentioned rosemary. Allegedly, surrounding yourself with these should help prevent mosquitoes, but since none of us sit next to these plants all the time, and for easy transportation, a spray is a more practical option.
Other than these, I also remember that in the years I was living in a rice-producing region where (tiger) mosquitoes would swarm during the summertime, we would use citronella candles around us when outdoors. These worked up to a point, as you still needed to wear powerful insect repellent particularly at dusk. We also needed to spray specially formulated mixtures over clothes, including jeans (yes, I was bitten through the jeans more than once and in less than comfortable places!). Asides from potentially harmful inhalations, I have no problem using strong repellents on jeans and clothes if needs must, where it doesn't come into contact with my skin. However, when it comes to my skin I pay more attention these days, as I have mentioned in a previous blog post.
Most commercially produced insect repellents contain a substance called DEET or N, N-diethyl-meta-toulamide. This is a chemical that can have harmful effects on your health, particularly if used on children. I won't bore you with the long list of side effects, I'll just let you consider this fact: DEET is a chemical used to melt plastic. Need I say more?
So, armed with this knowledge, I proceeded to take a DIY approach which would be kinder to my skin, and preserve my health. There are many different mixtures you can prepare yourself at home. I went for the most basic one but using what is arguably the strongest natural insect repellent, Citronella. You may want to tweak this according to your needs (essential oils are very powerful and may affect other areas of your health, or your pets!!). I used water but you can also use an oil such as coconut oil as a carrier, which will have the double win-win as it will also moisturise your skin at the same time.
My 2 ingredient natural mosquito repellent
60 ml water (or carrier oil)
10-20 drops of Java Citronella (Cymbopogon winterianus) essential oil
Place these in a small spray bottle (preferably glass, if not BPA free plastic, read more here) and mix well. I recommend you start on the lowest dose of essential oil, 10 drops. That might well be enough. You can add more drops (up to a maximum of 20) if you feel the need. You can also add other essential oils to increase the strength or add a nicer smell . The safest to use for children, and possibly for pregnant women (but speak to your doctor first!) is a particular type of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia or lavandula officinalis). Always start with a few drops only. And keep the proportions of carrier to essential oils the same. I would recommend 10 drops of each oil to start with and see how it goes. You can re-spray every hour or so if necessary, remembering to shake the bottle before each application.
This is the softest possible repellent. It worked for me near the lagoon, but I would not advise you to test it in extreme conditions where malaria, zika or other potentially dangerous diseases could be carried by the local mosquitoes.
The essential oil manufacturer I swear by recommends the following formula as an insect repellent, which can also be used on bites to reduce itchiness and swelling:
Pre and post mosquito-bite mix
20 drops Spike Lavender (Lavandula spica or Lavandula latifolia) essential oil*
20 drops Madagascar Citronella (Cymbopogon giganteus) essential oil
10 drops Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) essential oil
50 drops of carrier oil: Macadamia oil
This can be applied 4 to 6 times per day.
*Please note that according to my findings, Lavandula Spica is not as safe to use with children as it is more stimulating than its cousin Lavandula Officinalis.
Needless to say all the essential oils used are pure 100%, organic and wherever possible they are also food-grade. I live by the principle: if you can't ingest it, why risk it!
Essential oils generally used to make natural insect repellents
The list below is by no means an exhaustive list which you can choose from according to your specific needs. Remember that no essential oil should be used on its own, it must always be used with a carrier.
Citronella, Java (Cymbopogon winterianus)
Citronella, Madagascar (Cymbopogon giganteus)
Geranium, bourbon (Pelagonium graveolens type bourbon),
Cedar wood, atlas (Cedrus atlantica),
Lavender (Lavandula officinalis),
Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia),
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita),
Basil (Ocimum basilicum),
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis),
Catnip (Nepeta Cataria),
Palmarosa or Turkish Geranium (Cymbopogon martinii var. motia),
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zerlanicum or Cinnamomum verum),
Cinnamon, Chinese (Cinnamomum cassia),
Eucalyptus, blue (Eucalyptus citriodora).
I have also come across DIY insect repellents containing witch hazel (the liquid) which has a moisturising effect at the same time as serving like a carrier mixed with other natural ingredients. Personally, I have not been able to test this as I was unable to find natural witch hazel.
Whatever you use, don't forget to do a patch test on your skin first. Choose your ingredients carefully. If you have small children and pets not all essential oils are safe or recommended. Also bear in mind, in my experience those oils sold with a generic name (Lavender) and no indication of the Latin name, are not the best. Often they are diluted and contain other ingredients, no matter what the label says (read the ingredients in the small print, if available).
Ways to prevent bites
Of course, the best way to avoid attracting insects in the first place is to say cool and dry. Heat and sweat are magnets for insects and whether or not these bite, they can still be a nuisance. Wearing loose clothing and leaving the least amount of exposed skin also helps (except in areas full of malaria infested mosquitoes). The perfume you use, the food you eat and your hormones can also be a deterrent/magnet. Generally speaking the worst time of day is around dusk, so you might like to be extra vigilant then, or stay indoors.
What to apply on bites
As well as the mixture of essential oils mentioned above, a natural way to soothe bites is using aloe vera gel, calendula, lavender, chamomile and tea tree oils (remember to use a carrier oi for all essential oils: coconut, olive, macadamia.!!).
Finally, other than protecting your skin, you might also like to protect your home. You can choose to diffuse one of the oils mentioned above.
I am happy to report that I returned home from my holiday very rested and completely bite free. While I wait for a more challenging testing ground (near the rice fields) later this year, I hope the information above will help you to also keep those irritating bugs away. Do share your own experience with me. I am always happy to hear from you.