Natural Bug Repellents to Keep Your Dinners Outside Bearable

updated Oct 24, 2020
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woman spraying insect repellent on her leg
Credit: Maridav/Shutterstock

There’s nothing like a swarm of mosquitoes or army of ants to ruin your time outdoors. Even though bugs are often useful, they can put a damper on picnics, BBQs, and simply chilling outside, and leave you with some nasty bites and stings. Thankfully it’s fairly simple to find ways to keep bugs away.

While it’s easy enough to grab the most potent bottle in the bug spray aisle or whip up a random DIY you’ve found, if you’re curious about the types of repellents out there and want to delve a bit deeper into your research of natural alternatives, you’ve come to the right place. While there are natural options available, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the conventional ones you can buy in-store and vice versa. To help inform your decision, we rounded up several options and spoke with entomologist Kristie Reddick, the director of The Bug Chicks, about natural repellents, DEET, and keeping bugs at bay, naturally.

1. The Right Essential Oils 

“Okay, here’s the deal with natural repellants—lots of people think that sprinkling any kind of lovely smelling essential oil will repel insects, but the best thing to use that has both efficacy studies to back it up and EPA studies for health and safety of users is para-menthane 3, 8-diol (PMD) from Lemon Eucalyptus extract,” says Reddick. She recommends one from the brand Repel, which she’s even used in the Amazon Rainforest. Kristie also notes that just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe, so do your research before mixing essential oils with a carrier oil and placing on your skin or around places you’ll be hanging out.

2. Garlic Spray

While garlic may be the key to many delicious dishes, you’ll find many bugs don’t find it quite as enticing. SFGate recommends mixing a solution of garlic and water to spritz around your outdoor space and fend off bugs like mosquitoes. 

3. Soy-Based Products 

One study has indicated that soy-based products are the next best thing to bug repellents with DEET, offering over an hour and a half of protection, which is still quite small in comparison to those with DEET. You can usually find soy-based bug repellents in spray form, such as Bite Blocker. But another study that took place in Germany has shown that soya bean essential oils may also be helpful and were grouped in with a variety of other essential oils that provided around eight hours of protection.

4. Keep Standing Water Away

Any place that retains rain or has standing water in it is basically a big blinking “vacancy” sign for female mosquitoes to come hang out and lay their eggs. “Dump anything outside that has standing water in it and clean up any empty containers that can hold small amounts of water after it rains,” says Reddick. “Mosquitoes lay their eggs in water and don’t need much for their larvae to pupate.”

5. Build an Outdoor Space Catered to Predators and Pollinators

While it might sound scary at first, insects and arachnids like bees and spiders are actually really helpful in keeping harmful biting insects out of your space. “Cultivate a habitat that brings pollinators and natural predators into your green space!” Reddick says. “Keep spiders around—they are nature’s pest control operators.”

Bonus: Learn More About Your Local Bugs

According to Reddick, some mosquitoes are helpful in pollination and fending off their harmful cousins. “Male mosquitoes don’t bite; they are pollinators,” she says. “Some of the rarest orchids in the world are only pollinated by male mosquitoes. Also, not all female mosquitoes bite mammals,” she says, continuing that one of her favorites, the elephant mosquito (Toxorhynchites spp.), is actually really helpful, and eats the larvae of another kind of mosquito that spreads diseases like yellow fever and Zika. “The adult elephant mosquitoes are huge and often very colorful and eat nectar and pollen. And they have style! We think they look like if Snoop was a mosquito—they are very cool. So don’t lump all of these flies together!”