Everybody -- even those who aren’t really the “outdoorsy type” -- gets the itch to get outside and enjoy the world once in a while, whether it’s with a hike, a bike ride, a weekend camping trip, or just a walk around the block. If you’re going to be out after sunset though, you’ll probably have to deal with a different kind of itch; the kind that comes from insects, like mosquitoes and biting flies. No problem, though; you’ll just grab some bug spray at the grocery store and you’re ready to go, right?
Not quite. The problem is that most commercial insect repellents contain DEET, a toxic chemical that -- while very effective at keeping the bugs away -- can cause a variety of unpleasant side effects, including rashes, redness, and swelling when topically applied. Most of the products that contain DEET also include alcohol, which increases the amount of DEET absorbed into the skin. DEET-containing products can also be dangerous to pets, and in rare cases have been known to cause seizures.
Luckily for you, we’ve got you covered with 3 different DIY solutions to your six-legged problems that won’t endanger you, your kids, or your pets: One spray, one balm, and one ultra-simple idea that’s been in wide use throughout South America for generations.
Homemade Bug Spray
If you’re just looking to replace your commercial spray with something a little more environmentally friendly, this homemade spray is the way to go.
Here’s what you’ll need to get started:
A spray bottle or atomizer (around 10 ounces should do the trick)
Essential oils of tea tree, lemon, peppermint, eucalyptus, clove, lemongrass, or lavender (Any one of these or a combination of your choice will do.)
Once you’ve gotten all the ingredients together mix equal parts of the witch hazel and water, and fill the spray bottle most of the way with this mixture. This solution will act as a carrier for the oils, and the astringent qualities of the witch hazel will also help to treat any bites you already have.
After that, all that’s left is to add a total of about 15 drops of the oil or oils of your choice. If you’re going to be using the spray on very young children, you may want to stay away from eucalyptus and lemon oils, as they can irritate their sensitive skin. We don’t have any little ones, and we’ve had great luck with eucalyptus and lavender, but part of the fun of making your own bug spray is that you can personalize your scent.
These sprays are also totally safe and effective for your outdoor pets as well. For a little extra protection, apply some of the undiluted oils to the edges of their collars to discourage ticks, fleas, and other pests from making their home under them in the warm, dark, moist conditions that parasites love.
One last, quick note: though this spray is all-natural and very safe, it will likely cause discomfort if it makes contact with eyes or wounds, whether yours, your child’s, or your pet’s, and will probably make you sick if you drink it (but then again why would you?). If you take the same precautions you would when using any other bug spray, you shouldn’t have any problems.
Homemade Bug Balm
If you -- like me -- aren’t a huge fan of having liquids sprayed at your face (It usually results in a brief, but involuntary spaz attack), then we’ve got just the solution for you. This insect repellant balm works in much the same way as the spray, except that you use beeswax as the carrier, instead of sprayable liquids. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:
Sweet almond, coconut, jojoba, sesame, or olive oil (Any one or combination of your choice will do.)
Cedarwood essential oils
Lemongrass essential oils
Eucalyptus essential oils
Citronella essential oils
After you’ve compiled the list of ingredients, use a kitchen scale to portion 1-2 ounces of the beeswax (depending on your desired consistency), 8 ounces total of the oils from the first bullet point above, .2 ounces each of the eucalyptus, lemongrass, and cedarwood essential oils, and .4 ounces of the citronella essential oils.
Mix the non-essential oil(s) with the beeswax to the desired consistency. Since the wax will keep hardening as it cools, a good way to keep tabs on what your end-result will be like is to put a tablespoon of the mixture in the freezer for a minute or two. If it’s too soft, you need more wax. If it’s too hard, you need more oil.
Now that you’ve got the base to the proper consistency, melt this mixture in a small pot over very low heat (still without the essential oils). Once melted to a liquid, let it cool for about 3 minutes and add the essential oils. Before the completed mixture sets, pour it into the vessel of your choice. Things like used mint tins or small mason jars can be good if you’ve got any laying around the house.
Make sure to label your balm with date and ingredients, in case you happen upon a really great mixture. This balm will last upwards of 2 years and depending on the oils you use, may actually last many as five. To use it just apply generously and often to your skin before and during outdoor activities where you’d expect biting/stinging insects.
Homemade Bug Repellent...Thing
This one is a significant departure from our last two suggestions, and though we have yet to see it’s effectiveness independently verified, people all over the world (including the U.S. Army) use it and swear by it.
So here’s the idea: You take a transparent vessel -- usually a sandwich bag or something like it -- fill it with water, and suspend it from a string or rope. According to the method’s die hard supporters, these hanging bags of water will deter flies and other insects from coming near.
There doesn’t seem to be a universally acknowledged reason that bugs stay away from these contraptions, but here are a few of the ideas floating around:
The bugs see their own amplified reflection and flee out of fear.
The bugs perceive the flickering of light as motion and stay away from the perceived danger
The bugs simply can’t process the irregular way in which light refracts through the water, and are driven away by the distraction.
Now, while we don’t know if any of those assertions are true, what we do know is that this method of repelling bugs is enormously popular world-wide. In fact, Jose de la O, a Mexican designer now based in Amsterdam has even come up with a decidedly less DIY and much more polished version of this idea, which he sells from his website.
Just Say No to Commercial Bug Spray
Whichever method you end up going with, something we can all agree on is that there are just about always effective, holistic, environmentally responsible alternatives to those harmful mass-produced products we see at the store. While it may take a little more time to create your own insect repellent, you can take satisfaction from the fact that you’re doing the right thing for your health, your family’s health, and the planet. It’s also kind of fun.
Now that you don’t have to worry about itchy bug bites, it’s time to get out there and have some fun.