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Natural Bug Repellent: DEET-Free Methods for Repelling Mosquitoes

Woman applies a DEET-free spray to repel mosquitoes on her legs

There’s nothing more annoying than having a mosquito buzzing around and around your ear while you’re trying to fall asleep, or swatting flies away during what would otherwise have been an enjoyable outdoor summer dinner in the backyard. Let’s explore some natural bug repellent options that are DEET-free and still work.

Why Are Mosquitoes Drawn to Some People More Than Others?

Why does it seem that these pesky little critters are drawn to some people? Turns out, it’s not all random. There are several factors that may impact the probability of getting bitten.

  1. What you’re wearing. Dr. Jonathan Day, professor of medical entomology at the University of Florida, suggests that dark colors stand out against the horizon and make it easier for mosquitoes to see you.1 Mosquitoes also tend to bite areas of the body where the blood is closest to the surface. Wearing long sleeves and pants can help deter them, but as many can attest, the type of fabric you’re using to cover up may still be too thin to protect against bites.
  2. What you’re drinking. “Ingesting beer significantly increased the percentage of mosquitoes that landed on the subjects, though precisely why was unclear,” concluded a 2002 study in The Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association.2 The French National Research Agency also funded a similar study in 2010 that achieved the same results.3
  3. How you’re moving. Richard Pollack, an instructor at the Harvard School of Public Health and adviser to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, explained mosquitoes can figure out where their target is by following exhaled carbon dioxide trails. If you’re exercising or performing a strenuous activity, you’re also producing more CO₂. Not only that, but the movement from physical activity and elevated body temperature also makes you an attractive target.

So just wear light colors and thick fabrics, stand perfectly still, and lay off the beer. I’m kidding. But must we douse ourselves in DEET to keep our days and evenings skeeter-free? Not at all.

Topical Repellents: Natural Bug Repellents for Your Skin

If you want to avoid chemical-based repellents altogether, a few promising topical alternatives do exist. “Of the products we tested, a soybean oil–based repellent, was able to protect from mosquito bites for about 1.5 hours,” said Mark Fradin, Ph.D., a researcher with Chapel Hill Dermatology.4 He and fellow researchers found other oils such as citronella, cedar, peppermint, lemongrass, and geranium provide short-lived protection at best as topical remedies

Oil of eucalyptus products, however, may offer longer-lasting protection, preliminary studies show. Endorsed by the CDC, oil of lemon eucalyptus is available under the brand name Repel and offers protection similar to low concentrations of DEET.

Other Natural Repellents

What about other remedies to keep mosquitoes at bay? Is there anything we can eat to make ourselves a less appealing target?

Thiamine (AKA vitamin B1) has been touted for decades as a natural repellent, either ingested or applied topically. However, a recent review of over 100 studies and reports could not find enough evidence to the claims of its effectiveness.5

Garlic comes to mind, as it was recommended as a means to aid in repelling ticks and fleas from dogs. Interestingly, eating garlic doesn’t seem to have as much of an effect as applying it topically. A solution of 1% garlic combined with beeswax and petroleum jelly warded off mosquitoes for up to 8 hours in an Indian field study, according to the Colorado State University Extension.6

If you don’t feel like slathering yourself down with petroleum jelly before your next cookout, consider getting citronella candles or torches to place around your backyard patio.

Certain live herbs will also put the pesky bloodsuckers at bay, such as mint, lemongrass, lavender, and rosemary.

If all else fails, having fans to create a breeze will break up the carbon dioxide emissions and disrupt the mosquitoes’ flight patterns.

While the scientific jury is still out on definitive foods you can eat to repel mosquitoes, that doesn’t mean you can’t find something that may work for you. “Certain foods in certain individuals may affect their individual attractiveness to biting arthropods, for better or for worse,” says the University of Florida IFAS Extension.7 That means if you notice mosquitoes seem to leave you alone every time you eat tomatoes, you may have found a natural, internal repellent.

But that doesn’t mean tomatoes will work for everyone. It also means the opposite is true, and you may find foods that turn you into a mosquito magnet. Keep track of what you’re eating before venturing outdoors this summer and see if you can strike the right dietary balance to minimize the risk of bites.


[1] Mohney, Gillian. “5 Things That Make You a Mosquito Magnet.” ABC News. ABC News Network, n.d. Web. 14 July 2015.

[2] O’connor, Anahad. “The Claim: Eating Garlic Helps Repel Mosquitoes.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 July 2007. Web. 14 July 2015.

[3] Lefèvre T, Gouagna LC, Dabiré KR, Elguero E, Fontenille D, et al. (2010) Beer Consumption Increases Human Attractiveness to Malaria Mosquitoes. PLOS ONE 5(3): e9546.

[4] “Mosquito Magnets: Who/What Attracts Mosquitoes?” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 14 July 2015.

[5] Shelomi M. Thiamine (vitamin B1) as an insect repellent: a scoping review. Bull Entomol Res. 2022 Aug;112(4):431-440. doi: 10.1017/S0007485321001176. Epub 2022 Feb 24. PMID: 35199632.

[6] “Is There a Food That You Can Eat to Repel Mosquitoes?” LIVESTRONG.COM. LIVESTRONG.COM, 16 June 2015. Web. 14 July 2015.

[7] Rutledge-Connelly, Cynthia Roxanne. 2002. “Mosquito Repellents: ENY-671/IN419, 9/2002”. EDIS 2002 (4).

Nell Stephenson, B.S.

Nell Stephenson has been an advocate for The Paleo Diet since 2011, and is the co-author of The Paleo Diet Cookbook.

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