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The Best Essential Oils For Keeping Bugs At Bay + How To Use Them

Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Portrait Of A Young Woman With Essential Oil
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Bug bites may be a cost of entry to summertime outings, but that doesn't make them any less annoying. While repellents containing DEET or picaridin will provide the most protection from hungry insects, certain essential oils also help keep bugs at bay—and smell pretty great doing it.

We spoke to natural skin care expert and founder of Osmia Sarah Villafranco, M.D., to get the scoop on which essential oils offer the most bug protection and how you should (and shouldn't) use them this season.

What kind of essential oils are best for keeping bugs away?

Plants have evolved to emit fragrant compounds that offer some level of protection from insect attacks. These are preserved during the distillation process, so any high-quality essential oil will also contain them.

"Essential oils all comprise multiple chemical constituents with names like geraniol, citronellol, citronellal, and linalool. Studies are sparse on individual components, but some (like geraniol and vetiverol) are more active against insects than others," Villafranco explains.

Some commonly available essential oils that are often used to keep bugs at bay include lemongrass, citronella, and geranium, says Villafranco. Mint, basil, and turmeric are also skin-safe oils that have been researched for their repellent properties.

"They all work reasonably well, but because they are volatile, meaning they evaporate into the air fairly quickly, they need to be reapplied frequently to remain effective. For that reason, I like vetiver, which stays on the skin much longer than most other essential oils," Villafranco notes.

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How you should (and shouldn't) use them.

DO: Apply them as a body oil or spray.

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Lathering up in any combination of these scents will make you less attractive to hungry critters. Villafranco recommends using body oils as opposed to alcohol-based sprays, which don't hold the essential oils on the skin for as long. Either way, you'll want to make sure that any spray or oil you buy or DIY comes from a trusted EO source, as certain oils can really irritate (or even damage) the skin if they're not properly diluted, especially when exposed to sunlight.

And pro tip: Since essential oils are often more volatile than you think, you'll want to keep your spray or oil handy for reapplication.

DO: Go the candle route.

If you're staying put at an outdoor dinner or gathering, candles that contain these fragrant compounds can also help keep bugs away. One candle is good, but multiple will be even better, Villafranco says.

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DO harness the power of plants themselves.

Calling all backyard gardeners: You can also go straight to the source and position some bug-repelling plants near the seating area where you like to entertain. Not only will they look and smell amazing; they might keep you and your guests more comfortable too.

DON'T rely on them for total protection.

Experts caution against using essential oils and DIY remedies as your only form of bug protection—especially if you're in an area with known insect-borne diseases or doing a higher-risk activity like hiking, camping, or working with animals.

As one 2011 review on plant-based insect repellents concludes, "Repellents containing only essential oils in the absence of an active ingredient such as DEET should not be recommended as repellents for use in disease endemic areas."

Instead, Villafranco adds, "If you're in an area where there's a concern for mosquito transmission of Zika virus, dengue virus, or malaria, this tool by the EPA can be helpful for choosing an effective repellent."

While essential oil mixes might smell nicer than an over-the-counter product containing DEET or picaridin, it's always better to be safe than sorry when bugs are concerned.

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The takeaway.

While they shouldn't be your only form of bug protection, certain essential oils have insect-repelling properties that can come in handy at your next backyard BBQ. And if a rogue mosquito does get to you, here are the best oils for soothing the itch.

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