In DIY, Essential Oils

Love being outdoors but hate getting bit by bugs? Here’s a non-toxic, natural homemade alternative to those harmful store-bought bug repellents. The bonus is this DIY version works as well as those containing DEET! Finally, a homemade bug spray that’s effective against mosquitos, biting flies, ticks, and gnats.

Homemade Bug Spray in amber spray bottle with recipe ingredients in the background.

This post was originally published in March 2018 but has been updated for relevancy and photos. 

The best part about this homemade bug spray recipe is that it’ll take you longer to read this post than to actually mix up a batch!

In late spring and all through the summer, I’m like a giant beacon for mosquitoes and other biting bugs. If I’m outside and there are mosquitoes within a mile radius, I’m getting bitten. Can anyone else relate?

Thankfully, I also happen to have a pretty awesome homemade bug bite relief recipe. And if you’re new to essential oils, I highly recommend you read this Essential Oils 101 post. And since it’s summer and you’re looking for natural remedies, I also will highly recommend this natural allergy relief since it seems spring and allergies go hand-in-hand.

It seems to be some type of genetic makeup as my husband can be sitting right next to me, at the same campfire, and not get a single bite… two of our five children have also inherited this unfortunate “bug beacon gene”.

After buying multiple kinds of natural bug spray, many of which didn’t seem to help a single bit, I turned to making our own homemade bug spray, if I actually remember to use it, our outdoor time has never been better or more itch-free!

Plant Therapy 7 & 7 Essential Oils Starter Set

Why Make Homemade Bug Spray?

It’s simple! We want to avoid the harmful chemicals in commercial bug sprays at all costs!

After ditching nearly all the chemicals in our home, I made it my mission to search out a healthy alternative to the dangerous, mainstream bug repellents. I came across an article that detailed why homemade essential oil bug repellents don’t work as well as their chemical-laden counterparts, especially those containing DEET (which, for the record, will melt holes in a two-way radio, please don’t put it on your skin).

It’s not that essential oils are less powerful at repelling those nasty blood-suckers (in fact, they actually work better than most synthetic ingredients) but because EOs are extremely volatile, meaning they dissipate quickly, they must be reapplied more often (usually once every 30-60 minutes).

Once the essential oil evaporates, the scent is gone and their power over mosquitoes is gone as well.

This is the same for all those mosquito-repelling plants that you’ve been filling your yard with. Unless the plant is actually bruised and releases the oils within the leaves, the plant sitting in your yard has no real mosquito-repelling benefits.

But with the fear of Lyme disease, or West Nile Virus (both diseases carried by insects), many will choose to protect themselves from bites over the concern of potentially dangerous chemicals in insect repellent.

DEET (or N,N-diethyl-meta-tolumide) has been shown to harm the brain and nervous system function. Even more so in children as their skin more readily absorbs chemicals in the environment. The chemicals in these sprays have more potent effects on their still-developing nervous systems.

Thankfully new research is being done on the efficacy of essential oils and, not surprisingly, because these are in their natural form (as opposed to synthetic chemicals meant to mimic these natural compounds), so-called “Super Bugs” aren’t immune to their effects. The bonus is, these natural oils don’t have a negative effect on our bodies.

How to Make Homemade Bug Spray Last Longer

As I mentioned, many homemade bug sprays only work for a short period of time. Once the essential oil scent is gone, so are the bug-fighting powers.

The good news is you can extend the life of your bug spray by adding vanillin! Sounds weird, I know, but it turns out vanillin (a natural compound extracted from vanilla seed pods) has been added to perfumes for years to slow down the evaporation rate, making the scent last longer. It works by reducing the volatility of essential oils and, in some tests, doubled the length of the potency of the oils.

A chart on the chemistry of Insect Repellents.

Real vanillin can be cost prohibitive so I was happy to find that vanilla extract works as a suitable second place option as it still contains some vanillin (steer clear of imitation vanilla, not because synthetic vanilla is harmful when used topically, but because of the harmful ingredients like caramel coloring, preservatives and corrosive acids that lurk within). 

In addition to vanillin, by combining several essential oils together, your results at repelling multiple species of mosquitoes improves. Did you know there are 176 species of mosquitoes in the United States and 3,500 species worldwide?

Studies explain why certain ingredients can have a repelling effect on mosquitos. Certain oils, like catnip oil, are actually ten times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET. And lemon eucalyptus oil is the first plant-based mosquito repellent to be endorsed by the CDC. This progress is huge and very encouraging!

Essential oils that repel mosquitoes:

My favorite is this Nature Shield blend (or KidSafe Shield Me) which combines many of the oils listed above. I pair it with lemon eucalyptus (which is not two oils, but one) and some organic vanilla extract. As soon as warm weather hits, I whip up the following recipe to give our family the best shot at avoiding those itchy bites all summer long.

Picture of ingredients used for homemade bug spray.

Natural Bug Spray Ingredients

  • Lemon Eucalyptus Oil is an essential oil that has a light, sweet lemony citronella-type scent.
  • Nature Shield essential oil – a combination of Citronella, Geranium Egyptian, Lemongrass, Eucalyptus Globulus, Lavender, Tea Tree, and Patchouli, Cedarwood Virginian and Catnip. (If you’re making this recipe for kids under 10 years old, use this KidSafe Shield Me. It’s a combination of Citronella, Grapefruit Pink, Geranium Bourbon, Rosalina, and Patchouli.)
  • Organic Vanilla Extract – adding this helps prolong the life of your bug spray once it’s applied to your skin or clothing.
  • Organic Witch Hazel – acts as an astringent agent that dissipates quickly on the skin leaving the oils to do their job.
  • Organic Neem Oil or Fractionated Coconut Oil – used as a carrier oil to dilute the essential oils to a safe percentage for use.

Instructions to Make Homemade Insect Repellent

This recipe couldn’t be easier to make. Once you have your ingredients, you just mix them all together, shake it up and you’re ready to go!

We do recommend using a dark glass amber spray bottle. Essential oils can deteriorate plastic, so we like using the 4 oz. glass bottles. They’re very durable and we haven’t had any issues with them breaking.

Also, be sure to store this recipe in a dark, temperature-stable cupboard. You’ll want to avoid leaving this in places like your car where the temperature will fluctuate as heat and sun exposure degrade the efficiency of the essential oils.

Picture of a hand spraying homemade bug spray on a child's hand.

How to Use Homemade Bug Spray

As I mentioned before, the essential oils in homemade bug repellent will dissipate quickly. Even with the vanilla extract, you’re going to want to reapply this bug spray every 2 hours for the duration you’re outside.

Just to reiterate, if you’re using this recipe on little kids, be sure you’re using the KidSafe essential oils blend.

Because everyone’s chemical makeup is different, you’ll need to experiment with how long this particular bug spray recipe works for you. If you’re exercising heavily and/or sweating, you may need to apply it more liberally and more frequently.

If you’re swimming, you’ll want to dry off completely and then reapply.

Bug Spray Tips & Tricks

  • When packing this bug spray for a hike, toss it in your bag in a sealed zip-top bag to avoid possible leaks/spills.
  • If you won’t be hiking with this spray, these glass spray bottles are recommended. Even if you are hiking, we’ve had no issues with the glass breaking, but we do choose to be more careful for our kiddos…
  • This is why we use these plastic spray bottles for our kiddos, just to avoid the possibility of broken glass. We still recommend packing them in a zip-top bag to avoid leaks.
  • When spraying the face, we recommend spraying a little onto your hands and rubbing it onto your face to avoid accidental spraying in the eyes.
  • Our family chooses to use Plant Therapy for their high quality, pure, therapeutic-grade essential oils offered at affordable prices. For $10 off your first order, click through any of our Plant Therapy links and sign up for their newsletter. They’ll gift you $10 off of your first purchase. Plus shipping is always free, no matter how small or large your purchase.
A hand spraying a bottle of homemade bug spray.
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5 from 1 vote

Homemade Bug Spray

Love being outdoors but hate getting bit by bugs? Here’s a non-toxic, natural homemade alternative to those harmful store-bought bug repellents. The bonus is this DIY version works as well as those containing DEET and you can make it in less than 5 minutes.
Prep Time5 mins
Total Time5 mins
Keyword: Bug Repellent, Bug Spray, Insect Repellent
Yield: 4 oz. bug spray
Author: Kelsey Steffen

Instructions

  • Mix all ingredients together in a small spray bottle.
  • Shake bottle well before each application (and a few extra shakes between applications if spraying more than one person).
  • Apply to exposed skin as well as clothes, shoes, hats and backpacks. Be careful to avoid contact with eyes.

Notes

  • When packing this bug spray for a hike, toss it in your bag in a sealed zip-top bag to avoid leaks/spills.
  • If you won't be hiking with this spray, these glass spray bottles are recommended.
  • I always prefer glass when using essential oils, but because our kiddos pack their own bug spray in their hiking backpacks, we use these plastic spray bottles to avoid broken glass.
  • When spraying the face, we recommend spraying a little onto your hands and rubbing it onto your face to avoid accidental spraying in the eyes.
  • Our family chooses to use Plant Therapy for their high quality, pure, therapeutic grade essential oils offered at affordable prices. For $10 off your first order, click through any of our Plant Therapy links and sign up for their newsletter. They'll gift you $10 off of your first purchase. Plus shipping is always free, no matter how small or large your purchase.
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Showing 19 comments
  • Avatar
    Meg
    Reply

    Hello! Just wondering if the Vanilla Olesoresin EO would work, does it contain vanillin?

    • Kelsey Steffen
      Kelsey Steffen
      Reply

      Hi Meg! Great question! You could certainly give it a try! The CO2 Vanilla EO is a much thicker product than the solvent extracted Oleoresin, but I’m not certain of the amount of vanillin by comparison. Because we get away with using organic vanilla extract, I’d say it’s worth a shot using the EO, but do know that it wouldn’t be safe to use on children under 6! The CO2 Vanilla is safe for kiddos though! And so is organic vanilla extract! Best of luck and I hope those skeeters leave you alone this summer! 🙂

  • Avatar
    Chelsie
    Reply

    Would this blend be safe to use on my 5 week old infant?

    • Kelsey Steffen
      Kelsey Steffen
      Reply

      Hi Chelsie! Great question. Essential oil use on infants and small kiddos is quite a personal choice. It’d be my recommendation not to spray this on your kiddos, but rather spray the person holding them, or just make sure they’re covered in loose fitting clothing to keep the skeeters from landing on their skin. Hope this helps!

      • Avatar
        Kelli
        Reply

        What is the difference between the Nature Shield and Plant Therapy’s kids line (Insect Shield or something it’s called)?

        • Kelsey Steffen
          Kelsey Steffen
          Reply

          Great question Kelli! Plant Therapy takes all the guess work out of wondering if essential oils are safe to use on kiddos (focusing on ages 2-10), so the Kid Safe “Shield Me” blend has Citronella, Grapefruit, Geranium Bourbon, Rosalina and Patchouli, while the “Nature Shield” has Citronella, Geranium Egyptian, Lemongrass, Eucalyptus Globulus, Cedarwood Virginian, Lavender, Tea Tree, Catnip, and Patchouli. Some of the oils listed in the Nature Shield aren’t considered safe for use on children. So, if you’re spraying it on kiddos, go for the Shield Me blend!

  • Avatar
    Tracey
    Reply

    Would pure vanilla extract (Kirkland brand) work? It’s not organic but not imitation either.

    • Kelsey Steffen
      Kelsey Steffen
      Reply

      Yep! That should work great Tracey! You can always increase the vanilla extract to 1 Tbs if you want to be sure you’re getting enough vanillin! 🙂

  • Avatar
    Dawn Yoder
    Reply

    Very informative! Never occurred to me to add vanilla! Really love all the great info in this post, I shared!

    • Kelsey Steffen
      Kelsey Steffen
      Reply

      Thanks Dawn! The vanilla is a great trick! We appreciate the share!

  • Avatar
    Tracey
    Reply

    When I clicked on the Nature Shield it connected me to the wood dryer post?!

    • Kelsey Steffen
      Kelsey Steffen
      Reply

      Good catch! Thanks Tracey, it should be updated! Let me know if you have any other questions! 🙂

  • Avatar
    Shannon
    Reply

    Woah, I had no idea about the vanilla! Thanks for that tip. I might make some of this next spring for mosquito season in TX but with my own blend. Thanks!

    • Kelsey Steffen
      Kelsey Steffen
      Reply

      Awesome Shannon! Yeah, the vanilla is a total shocker, right? Hope this helps!

  • Avatar
    Carol Little R.H.
    Reply

    Thanks for sharing. I make one that is VERY effective and uses catnip oil!

    • Kelsey Steffen
      Kelsey Steffen
      Reply

      Yes! Catnip is another great oil to repel mosquitoes, just added that to the list of oils…thanks Carol!

  • Avatar
    Raia Todd
    Reply

    I need to make some of this. The mosquitoes are getting really awful down here. Is there anything I can use in place of witch hazel, though?

    • Kelsey Steffen
      Kelsey Steffen
      Reply

      Great question Raia! Although I’ve only used witch hazel, alcohol should be a good alternative. I’m not sure if hydrogen peroxide would work, as I’m not sure if it would interfere with the essential oils or not? Here’s to no biting bugs this summer!

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