A long hike through a lush forest, a twee picnic on a grassy field, a good read on a sandy beach—these are a few of our favorite summer things. Toss the buzzing and biting of mosquitos into the mix, however, and your leisurely sunny day quickly becomes a scene from your itchiest nightmares. To safeguard ourselves—and our vacation days—from the misery of mosquito bites, we cover ourselves head to toe in bug spray. Easy. But one look at the ingredient list might make you change your mind, which is how you started on this journey to begin with. With the help of entomologist Jonathan Fielding Day, Ph.D., here's a step-by-step guide for how to make mosquito repellent at-home. And keep reading for why we changed from regular spray.
How to Make Homemade Mosquito Repellent
Step 1: Pick your DEET alternative active ingredient
Now that you know what not to use, it’s time to figure out alternatives that are both effective and safer to use on yourself and your family. Day tells us the best option that checks both boxes is an essential oil or a combination of oils. Citronella and geranium oils, for example, are common active ingredients in repellents already. They work, says Day, “because they come from and have evolved with plants over time to naturally deter insects.” (High school biology is coming back to you now, right?)
Acidic plant oils like lemon and lime, pungent oils from peppermint, citronella, garlic and cloves, and earthy oils from cinnamon, tea tree, lavender and vanilla are all natural bug repellents. They’re not as potent or powerful as DEET, according to Day, but they can be used more often and more liberally without fear that you’re going to give yourself a rash worse than any bug could inflict on you. Still, keep in mind that you want to stick with 1 percent concentration of whatever oil you choose since higher concentrations can become irritants.
You’re welcome to experiment with mixing different oils to create a custom-scented mosquito repellent (lemon vanilla, anyone?)—just heed Day’s 1 percent note for your final mixture, but more on that later.
These essential oils on Amazon have five-star reviews from users—some of whom even used them for bug sprays:
Best Smell: Radha Beauty ($19 at Amazon)
Highest Quality: MitFlor Essential Oils ($16 at Amazon)
Organic Option: Pra Donna ($20 at Amazon)
Step 2: Choose your essential oil carrier
The most common carrier (aka the majority of the liquid that your essential oils are mixed into) is rubbing alcohol since 1) it’s safe on skin, 2) it’s easy to find and 3) oil and water don’t mix. If you’re not crazy about the idea of using rubbing alcohol in your mosquito repellent, you can use olive or coconut oil instead, but but beware of potential fabric stains, like on your clothes, bedding, couch or car seats.
If your active ingredient is vanilla, for example, and your carrier is alcohol, you now need to figure out a concentration that won’t be irritating, because even vanilla can become harsh. This is where our 1 percent rule comes in: Keep the oil to one milliliter and your carrier to 99 milliliters to be safe. (Easy math, you got this.)
Rubbing Alcohol: Solimo ($4 at Amazon)
Coconut Oil: Artizen Fractionated Coconut Oil ($10 at Amazon)
Step 3: Gather your equipment
Choosing your oils and carriers is the fun part, but now it’s time to get practical with your measuring and spritzing equipment. Even though we’ve strayed far from chemicals like DEET, Day still advises skipping the aerosol can when using a homemade mosquito repellent.
“The last thing in the world you want is to inhale these mixtures when they’re misted in the air,” he says. “Use a regular bottle and don’t spray yourself in your house or your garage; do it outside only.”
The best way to measure your oils accurately without guesstimating your way to the emergency room is to purchase a handy dropper with milliliter measurements already included and a standard, non-aerosol spray bottle that follows the same idea as the dropper but in larger quantities.
Step 4: Mix it up, use it and store it safely
Measure out your carrier in the bottle and add oil with the dropper. Store it like you would any other household bath or kitchen item—in a room temperature area that’s out of your children’s reach. Essential oils do expire, so to get the most out of your homemade mosquito repellent, it’s best to use it up within a year.
Remember that if you’re still wary of spraying something meant to repel bugs onto your and your children’s skin, you can always use a rubbing alcohol–based spray on your clothes instead. Spray down what you’re planning to wear for the day, let the shirts, shorts and socks air-dry and then slip them on for protection that doesn’t involve any contact with your skin and tell those mosquitoes to buzz off.
Reasons to Make Homemade Mosquito Repellent
Take a peek at the label of almost any popular bug spray and you’ll likely see that DEET (diethyltoluamide) is listed prominently. The yellowish, oil-based chemical compound might be the most common active ingredient among mass-market insect repellents. Although it’s an effective active ingredient, it’s strong and it can be harsh and irritating when used in direct contact with skin. A University of Michigan health report writes that it shouldn’t be used in concentrations above 30 percent.
Folks making homemade bug spray should avoid using DEET. Why? Entomologist Jonathan Fielding Day, Ph.D., explains: “One issue has always been formulation. DEET formulations in the early 1950s made for terrible products to put on your skin. A lot of work has since gone into the formulation to make it safer to apply to skin and without a horrible odor. Experimenting on your own will send you back to the ’50s with a repellent that stings and burns your skin.” Think of it this way: If it took the Food and Drug Administration so long to figure out how much DEET our skin can tolerate, why would you even want to mess with it?
We also learned that DEET is unsafe to spray on your kiddos more than once a day, and it’s strongly advised that no one, regardless of age, use it on broken or sunburned skin or in an unventilated space. Hmm, summer…skinned and sunburned knees…this isn’t sounding great.
On top of these health reasons, stocking up during the mosquito high season can cost a pretty penny. Good thing we learned making homemade mosquito repellent isn’t that complicated.