I give up.
Most people cry “uncle” when the bugs get so bad they can’t stand it anymore, running for cover inside because they can’t figure out how to prevent mosquito bites, especially naturally.
I’m feeling the opposite: the bugs have won, but not by biting. I’ve had natural insect repellent samples for two summers now, and I haven’t found enough bugs to test them well! Only a handful of time have we actually been able to spray a few different formulas on our skin and take notes on effectiveness.
But at this point, I’m giving up.
It’s time to share some sort of natural bug spray review with you, and if I ever meet up with a swarm of hungry mosquitoes or flies, I can come back and update.
What Makes a Natural Insect Repellent Work?
Most natural bug sprays that I was able to review use essential oils or other plant compounds that the insects simply don’t like, or which make bugs sick.
Here is a list of all the possible active ingredients:
- neem oil
- geranium oil
- tea tree/melaleuca oil
- lavender oil
- rosemary oil
- catnip/catnip oil
- peppermint oil
- cedarwood oil
- cedar oil
- citronella oil
- lemon tea tree oil
- lemongrass oil
- eucalyptus oil
- lemon eucalyptus oil
I checked most of them at EWG and they all seem to be a “0″ which is very safe.
Individual Natural Insect Repellent Reviews
I tested eleven different chemical free bug sprays from various companies, and although I only have anecdotal evidence on some of them, strangely enough, that may not matter.
I know when you’re shopping for the best natural bug spray, the first (and only) question you may care about is, “Does it work? Is the natural spray effective against the biting bugs? Will it prevent mosquito bites?”
In that case, you may not care that I can tell you the ease of use, whether it’s sticky or not, how good it smells, and the price.
But even if I had mosquitoes swarming daily or could put my arm in a glass box full of biting buggers for you, it’s possible that what works for me and my family wouldn’t work for yours anyway.
The way in which the active ingredients interact with a person’s body chemistry may have a great impact on the bug spray’s effectiveness.
In that case, you’re just going to have to take a gamble and try some, BUT if you find a brand that does or doesn’t work, I can help you figure out what other brands (maybe less expensive) you should try because of similar active ingredients.
Make sure you also check out my homemade insect repellent recipes with tons of suggestions from readers!
Here’s a little comparison chart of what brand has what oils:
|Loving Nat||Mex||Pur Pra||Bien Ella||LuSa||My M.L.||Gr Gar||Made On||doT||Green bug|
|lemon tea tree||x|
Even though we didn’t get to test the bug sprays extensively, I still came out with recommendations. I always have an opinion, just like with the natural sunscreen reviews and when I sought the best cloth diapers.
Natural insect repellents that I recommend must be easy to use, smell decent, and usually demonstrated their effectiveness in preventing bug bites.
One More Thing: Does it Stain?
I figured if a bug spray is going to ruin all your clothing, who cares how well it works, right? I sprayed all of them right on a dark colored towel. Before:
You can see that a number of the sprays left an oil mark (the jar on the right is coconut oil, something I figure would leave a stain to compare). I washed the towel on hot and probably should have done cold, since that’s how I wash most of my clothes. All the stains came out. BUT. I think some of these have a great possibility of leaving problematic dark spots on brightly colored clothes.
For the record, those that initially left a mark included:
- Bien Ella
- Greenbug (not as dark)
- doTERRA (very badly)
- Purple Prairie Bug Stuff
- Graham Gardens
- (the last 3 are lotions and bars, so you wouldn’t rub them directly on clothing anyway…)
Natural Insect Repellent Sprays: Recommended
There are just a few non-toxic bug repellents that I feel I can really recommend – they were tested successfully and have super safe ingredients. However, remember that there are a lot of unknowns in the bug spray world, so be sure to check out the next couple categories, too.
Bien Ella All Natural DEET-free Bug Repellent
Price: $14.50 for 2 ounces (7.25/oz.)
Where to Purchase: Bien Ella
Safety Notes: “Do not use if pregnant or susceptible to seizures.” Rated “1″ at EWG.
Active Ingredients: neem oil, rosemary essential oil, peppermint essential oil, lemon tea tree essential oil, geranium essential oil, eucalyptus essential oil, lavender essential oil, catnip essential oil, citronella essential oil, lemongrass essential oil, tea tree essential oil and cedarwood essential oil.
Other Ingredients: soybean oil, coconut oil
Easy to use? Yes, simple spray
How does it smell? Ok. Nothing really stands out in the long list of oils and scents.
Did it prevent mosquito bites? Amazingly, I think it did. In four tests, three of which had prior mosquito sightings, the Bien Ella prevented all mosquito bites and landing mosquitoes.
The day my husband said “When do we get to go inside?” and raced in as soon as I gave him permission, we both used Bien Ella on our legs. We were so busy fending off mosquitoes from our faces and arms, the legs went almost unnoticed, but when I took notes afterward, I realized we didn’t have any issues with our legs, and no bites the next day. Score one for Bien Ella.
The most recent test, on July 4th, 2012, I had Purple Prairie on my arms and was busy watching a mosquito bite my bicep.
My husband, next to me, said, “Well I can say for sure they’re not visiting me, but they usually don’t.” I tried the one he was using (Bien Ella!) and it worked like a charm. I didn’t have a single visitor again. Impressive!
What’s the difference in ingredients? You might wonder the same thing I did. Many of the active essential oils are the same but in different quantities, but Bien Ella used a few that Purple Prairie didn’t, namely:
- peppermint essential oil This is in the Purple Prairie ingredients online now, so perhaps it’s been added
- lemon tea tree essential oil
- cedarwood essential oil.
KS recommends? It kills me, because this one is SO expensive and hard to find, but I actually would recommend Bien Ella. This Bien Ella formula is just packed with ingredients! But which ones are effective? Did the brand just hit on the right one or two for me because they threw everything in there, or is it the “everything” that makes it work? I’d love to try the new Purple Prairie as well.
Additional Notes: After both swimming and sprinkler play and a full day outside – over 8 hours later – you could still smell the Bien Ella on my kids’ arms.
For the record, I don’t love the soybean oil. I try to stay away from soy in food products, but I guess since I wouldn’t be using the bug spray very often, I don’t think I can get too worked up about that.
Greenbug All Natural Pest Control for People
Price: $7.95 for 2 oz., must order two (~$4/oz.)
Where to Purchase: Greenbug online
Safety Notes: Cedar is a “0″ rating (extremely safe) at EWG, and I can’t find anything on liquid quartz
Active Ingredients: cedar oil (10%)
Other Ingredients: silane fluid (90%) liquid state of quartz
Easy to use? Yes, spray is simple
Katie’s notes: This formula is the only one to rely on a single ingredient, which I think is fantastic. I figured being totally different, it would either succeed wildly or fail miserably. Cedar oil doesn’t show up in many other natural bug sprays, either.
How does it smell? The bottle says “pests can’t stand it!” Unfortunately, people can’t either (in our house). When I sprayed it on my son, he nearly cried and was mad at me for half an hour for putting it on his arm and not his leg. This stuff really does stink (but then again, so does the DEET-containing competition). I could smell it on myself – and didn’t like it – after using it outside and coming in to type up results! To be fair, everyone reacts to scents differently, so it’s very possible that some may love the smell – it’s cedar, like a cedar chest but less woody.
In fact, when rollerblading near Lake Huron recently, I smelled something that seemed familiar, and I realized I was reminded of Greenbug and was rolling through a grove of cedar trees. It made me wonder: if I hung out there, would I never see mosquitoes?
Did it prevent mosquito bites? Tested twice; no bites on son at day camp, but it didn’t keep mosquitoes away by the pool for hubs and me. No bites, but they were annoying enough to chase us inside.
KS recommends? Tough one. I think this stuff really works, but my kids hate the smell. I really want to look into their other products for keeping bugs away from the house in general. (see below)
Additional Notes: Greenbug also works on fleas, ticks, ants, head lice – even bed bugs. Read more about it here. I’m pretty excited to know the natural solution for lice, since it’s always been a fear of mine to get lice in the family and be forced to use super strength chemicals on everyone/everything!
I tried spraying Greenbug near some ants outside, and here’s what happened:
The ones who stayed directly in the the spray died within a minute, and the others wouldn’t go near it. (The photo above is probably after two minutes; many of the ants scattered to the left, and most were smart enough not to go anywhere near the patch of Greenbug on the right.)
If you don’t buy Greenbug for your skin, I would definitely have some on hand for home pest control and head lice. I wish I would have remembered this use when we had ants in our kitchen (again) this year! I was trying all sorts of things from the how to get rid of ants naturally post and it took forever for me to win the battle.
Natural Bug Bars and Insect Repellent Lotions
Some natural pest solutions don’t come in a spray bottle, and comparing them in the same group really is apples to oranges, so I just made a new category for the three non-spray options: a bug bar, a hard lotion stick, and a pump style lotion.
MadeOn Bug Block Bar
Price: $14.95 for 2 ounces ($7.50/oz.)
Where to Purchase: MadeOn Hard Lotion
Safety Notes: rated “0″ at EWG (very safe!)
Active Ingredients: citronella essential oil, cedarwood essential oil, lavender essential oil
Other Ingredients: beeswax, coconut oil, shea butter
Easy to use? So so. Nothing beats the speed of a spray, but the bar isn’t difficult, it just takes longer to apply.
Sticky? Sort of, like a good lotion. If you’ve ever used MadeOn’s hard lotion bars, it just feels like that. A little bit greasy.
How does it smell? I like it; the citronella is very strong.
Did it prevent mosquito bites? Yes. I lent the bar to my son’s day camp last year, and the kids overall loved it and thought it worked great. Primal Toad also allowed mosquitoes to land on him if they wanted, and although some landed on the arm with the MadeOn Bug Bar, they never bit.
KS recommends? Yes, with the caveat that a bar is very different than a spray. I feel like it’s worth trying though!
Additional Notes: Bonus on using the bar – you’re also moisturizing at the same time, so at least you get a benefit for the bit of extra time it takes to apply (vs. a spray).
Price: $16.50 for 0.8 ounce tube ($20.50/oz.)
Where to Purchase: Graham Gardens
Active Ingredients: organic citronella oil, cedarwood oil, organic catnip oil, need seed oil, rosemary oil, organic catnip, lavender, peppermint, rosemary, sage, wormwood
Other Ingredients: olive oil, castor bean oil, candelilla wax
Easy to use? Yes. The applicator stick wins out over the MadeOn bar for ease of use, since you don’t have to get your hands into it.
Sticky? Yes, just like a good lotion.
How does it smell? Okay, verging on unpleasant for me
Did it prevent mosquito bites? Maybe? The only times we got to use this bar was when we weren’t sure there were biting mosquitoes out anyway, so no bites didn’t necessarily mean anything was “blocked.”
KS recommends? Probably not; it’s just too expensive. However, if you want a bar type block that you don’t have to touch with your hands, this would still be worth it because the ingredients are quality and it would last a long time, I think.
Additional Notes: Moisturizes, too!
Purple Prairie Deet Free Lotion Bug Stuff
Price: $7.99 for 4 ounces ($2/oz.)
Where to Purchase: Purple Prairie, Amazon
Safety Notes: I checked all the ingredients I didn’t already recognize individually at EWG, and they’re all a “0″ for safety
Active Ingredients: eucalyptus citriadora (lemon eucalyptus), nepeta cataria (catnip) oil, cymbopogon schoenanthus (lemongrass) oil, eucalyptus globulus (eucalyptus) leaf oil, melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil, lavandula angustifolia (lavender) oil, rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) oil, mentha piperita (peppermint) oil, rosamarinus officinalis (rosemary) leaf extract and salix nigra (black willow) extract. [my bottle includes neem oil but the website does not]
Other Ingredients: aqua(water),organic cold pressed olea europaea (olive) fruit oil, hamamelis virginiana (witch hazel), kosher vegetable glycerin, organic cocos nucifera (coconut), behentrimonium methosulfate, cetyl alcohol, organic butylene glycol
Easy to use? Not so much. It’s a lotion in a pump bottle, so you must rub on the surface of your skin; can’t use on clothing. However, it does rub in well and clear, so if you are looking for a lotion, this is fine.
How does it smell? Pleasant; I think the eucalyptus comes through rather strongly
Did it prevent mosquito bites? No. In two tests, Purple Prairie failed to prevent mosquito bites. I even allowed mosquitoes to land on my arm and waited to see if it could stay there long enough to get a bite in if it wanted. It did.
KS recommends? No. I think the lotion is annoying as a spray is much quicker, especially for kids, and easier to spread evenly and fully. Since it didn’t work for us either, I’m not a fan.
Additional Notes: The lotion can also be used as an itch reliever if you do get a bug bite.
Natural Insect Repellent Sprays: The Maybe Group
This group includes the natural bug sprays that either couldn’t get a good test but have quality ingredients, or perhaps have one ingredient that gives me pause. There are probably some excellent choices here, so do keep reading!
Loving Naturals Organic DEET-free Insect Repellent
Price: $12.99 for 4 ounces ($3.25/oz.)
Where to Purchase: Mom4Life, Amazon
Active Ingredients: organic citronella oil, organic neem seed oil, organic lemongrass oil, organic cedarwood oil, catnip oil, organic geranium oil, organic rosemary oil
Other Ingredients: organic witch hazel extract, organic aloe vera gel, water, sea salt
Easy to use? yes, sprays in a nice mist
How does it smell? Fine, verging on pleasant
Did it prevent mosquito bites? Maybe. I had a good test once, with mosquitoes that chased all the children inside before we could figure out if it worked or not. My neighbor and I stayed outside and I wrote afterward: “I don’t think any mosquitoes landed on me…but tough to say.” The neighbor went on record thinking they sort of worked.
KS recommends? Probably? Loving Naturals is falling on the expensive end of the spectrum, but it did a decent job. You might want to check into others with similar ingredients first.
Additional Notes: If organic carries weight for you on essential oils, not all the brands use organic ingredients, but Loving Naturals does.
My Mama’s Love Bug Off Me
Price: $8.50 for 4 ounces (just over $2/oz.)
Where to Purchase: My Mama’s Love
Safety Notes: website states the oils are “100% pure, steam distilled.” Rated “0″ at EWG.
Active Ingredients: organic essential oils of tea tree, lavender, citronella, eucalyptus, lemon and lemongrass.
Other Ingredients: Water
Easy to use? Yes, sprays easily.
How does it smell? Quite pleasant and mild, almost sweet like vanilla
Did it prevent mosquito bites? Find another blogger’s positive experience here.
KS recommends? Unknown, but very safe formula; compare active ingredients to what works for you
Additional Notes: I wondered if the metal container would get too hot to touch if in a hot vehicle. The product is also available in a glass container instead of aluminum for an extra $1.00 here.
Thanks to Lullaby Organics for sharing this sample with me; that store is now closed and the mastermind mama behind it has launched the Healthy Products Guide and Healthy Home Magazine, both of which are wonderful resources!
Natural Bug Repellent Spray by LuSa Organics
Price: $8.95 for 4 ounces ($2.25/oz.)
Where to Purchase: Mighty Nest
Safety Notes: polysorbate-20 is rated “3″ at EWG, just out of the range of the super safe (0-2) but still considered fairly benign.
Active Ingredients: essential oil blend of lemon eucalyptus, cedar, rose geranium
Other Ingredients: *Aloe vera juice, witch hazel distillate, and polysorbate-20 (an olive oil and sugar based emulsifier). *certified organic ingredient
Easy to use? Yes, spray bottle
How does it smell? Not unpleasant, a little sharp from the lemon
Did it prevent mosquito bites? Unknown
KS recommends? Unknown, but hesitant about the preservative when no other brands needed it
Additional Notes: The bug spray comes in a metal bottle, which made me wonder if it would get too hot in a sunny vehicle.
About the company: LuSa Organics is a small family operation committed to supporting local and regional economies. Their ingredients are naturally sourced, primarily organic, and consistently high quality. They scent their products with essential oils and create color with natural pigments, herbs, and clays. Ten percent of LuSa’s annual profits are donated to organizations creating positive global change. Their intention is to leave the world a better, happier, and yes, cleaner, place for their work.
Mexitan Skedattle DEET-free All Natural Anti-Bug Spray and Mosquito Repellent
Price: $12.95 for 8 ounces ($1.60/oz.) or $6.99 for 3 ounces ($2.33/oz.)
Where to Purchase: Mexitan, Amazon
Safety Notes: Potassium Sorbate is rated “3″ at EWG; vanillin is a “0″ but many don’t like to use it in food products
Active Ingredients: Citronella Oil (4%), Lemongrass Oil (4%), Peppermint Oil (2%)
Other Ingredients: Vanillin, Purified Water, and Potassium Sorbate
Easy to use? Yes, simple spray
How does it smell? Mmm, really good. The vanilla scent is heavenly.
Did it prevent mosquito bites? Maybe? We only had one test, and no one got bitten, but maybe they wouldn’t have anyway.
KS recommends? Jury is out. I don’t love the preservative included, but the price is nice, and if these active ingredients work for you – and especially if anyone doesn’t love the smell of the essential oils – Mexitan is a well-sourced brand. Also, Skedattle is one of the more inexpensive brands.
Additional Notes: After 8 hours of swimming and sprinkler play, you could still smell the bug spray on my kids. It has staying power!
Natural Insect Repellents: Not Recommended
We did find a few natural bug sprays that didn’t seem to work for us – but remember that everyone’s body chemistry is different, so they might work for you! Purple Prairie also seems to have reformulated, since the online ingredients did not match my bottle…
Purple Prairie Deet Free Bug Spray
Price: $7.99 for 4 ounces ($2/oz.)
Where to Purchase: Purple Prairie, Amazon
Safety Notes: polysorbate 20, a preservative, is rated “3″ at EWG
Active Ingredients: eucalyptus citriadora (lemon eucalyptus), citronella, geranium, [azadirachta indica (neem) seed oil*online ingredients but not on my bottle], nepeta cataria (catnip) oil, cymbopogon schoenanthus (lemongrass) oil, [eucalyptus globulus (eucalyptus) leaf oil*also not on my bottle]melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil, lavandula angustifolia (lavender) oil, rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) oil, [mentha piperita (peppermint) oil*also not on my bottle] and salix nigra (black willow) extract.
Not sure why my bottle is really quite different from the online ingredients. Perhaps the formula has changed in the past year or two?
Other Ingredients: aqua (water), hamamelis virginiana (witch hazel), polysorbate 20
Easy to use? Yes, spray is easy
Sticky? Maybe a little
How does it smell? Pleasant but strong; the lemon and eucalyptus come through
Did it prevent mosquito bites? No. In two trials on two different people, it failed both times, both in keeping mosquitoes from landing and from biting.
KS recommends? No. Many brands don’t need a preservative, and this one didn’t seem to be a good fit for my family.
Additional Notes: Can be used as a general itch reliever on bites or chicken pox, etc.
Price: $12.67 for 15 mL (~$25/ounce)
Where to Purchase: doTERRA via Cindy
Active Ingredients: proprietary blend of 15 essential oils including at least lemon eucalyptus, citronella, and lemongrass
Other Ingredients: fractionated coconut oil
Easy to use? Not at all. The oils come in a regular oil bottle, so you either have to get just a few drops out and put on the skin or put a spray attachment on, in which case you end up using wayyyy too much for the price, and it doesn’t mist very well. This was the only bottle that leaked all over.
Sticky? Yes (sort of oily, really)
How does it smell? Smells like candy
Did it prevent mosquito bites? No. Not at all. In fact, the instructions say that TerraShield can be used aromatically as well, which would be great, except that when I opened the bottle all the way to try to form a cloud of protection around my face, hungry mosquitoes landed right on the bottle.
KS recommends? No. Besides the fact that it’s uber expensive and doesn’t really stretch farther than other formulas, it didn’t work and most likely stains clothing.
Additional Notes: I don’t like “proprietary blends” anyway. What if someone was allergic to an ingredient, like my aunt’s violent reaction to eucalyptus oil?
Other Reader Recommendations
- Vinegar of the Four Thieves works well and you only smell like salad for a short time! You can read about it and find the herb mix here. (Totally amazing stories, and I noticed the Graham Gardens Bug Block has pretty much these ingredients…)
- All Terrain’s Herbal Armor (liked by quite a handful of folks!)
- Badger Bug Balm (corroborated by a few)
- I’ll Fly Away by Selestial Soaps (Michigan company! Available at some local retailers in Grand Rapids including Treehuggers, Health Hutt, Smart Choice Market, and Harvest Health)
- Bite Blocker Organic
- California Baby
- CJ’s all natural or CJ’s Bug Banisher
- Away essential oil by Butterfly Express
How in the world are you going to choose? As I mentioned at the top of the post, various body chemistries may react differently with various oils, so you have to find the one that works right for you.
My recommendation, as an unapologetic frugal girl, is to start with something inexpensive or borrow a friend’s.
The great thing about the natural bug sprays and insect repellents is that even their chemical-laden competition doesn’t always work, either. The last time we were out with bugs and people, I overheard another July 4th partygoer tell the host that she had to go home and shower off to get the stinky bug spray smell out. “Not that it worked worn a darn anyway,” she complained.
I smiled secretly and breathed easily, thinking three things:
- I thought I smelled pretty darn good
- I didn’t have any mosquito bites
- I wouldn’t have to shower when I got home because my bug stuff was all natural
I hope you can find a formula that works to keep the buggers away from you and yours so you, too, can breathe easily when heading into the wild!
A huge thank you to the small businesses and brands that sent me products to review:
- Lullaby Organics
- Graham Gardens
- doTERRA and Cindy T
If you missed the last Monday Mission, click here.
Disclosure: All these products were free for my review, but my opinion is strongly my own! I do get a little kickback from a couple if you purchase starting with my links, including anything from Amazon or MadeOn, Mexitan, or Mom4Life. Notice that my top two recommendations are not affiliate programs, and I won’t make a cent! Enjoy the brutally honest reviews… See my full disclosure statement here.