mosquito biting a person's arm

Summer fun is easily ruined by insects. Ask any dermatologist or military commander what to do to avoid mosquito bites and you’ll be told that DEET is the answer (New England Journal of Medicine, July 4, 2002). The U.S. military developed DEET in the 1940s to protect its personnel from diseases carried by mosquitoes, biting flies, other insects and ticks. Such critters intensely dislike the smell of DEET and avoid it.

The trouble is that many people also dislike DEET. It can irritate the skin and has a greasy feel. Questions have been raised about neurotoxicity, especially when combined with permethrin, used on clothing to repel insects (Pharmacology, Biochemistry & Behavior, Feb. 2004). Nonetheless, a 33 percent DEET cream made by 3M (Ultrathon) is the standard issue insect repellent for the military.
Other ingredients have been tested and are approved by the FDA for deterring insects. Picaridin is apparently about as effective as DEET, but there have been fewer skin reactions reported. It is used to repel ticks, chiggers, fleas, biting flies and mosquitoes.

Another compound, IR3535, has been used in Europe for decades and is classified as a biopesticide because it is closely related to the amino acid alanine. In the U.S., it is found in Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard products as well as BullFrog’s Mosquito Coast.

Other natural approaches include products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus (Off! Botanical, Repel Oil of Eucalyptus, Fite Bite) or citronella (Buzz Away, Green Ban, Herbal Armor, Natrapel), derived from lemon grass. A product combining soybean oil, coconut oil and geranium oil (Bite Blocker) works longer than citronella but does not work against ticks.

Some readers have shared their own favorite ways of repelling mosquitoes. While they have not conducted fancy clinical trials, they have the advantage of direct experience. Here are some that may be of interest:

“I have used the ‘Dirt Doctor’s’ (Howard Garrett) formula for mosquito repellent with great success: Mix 8 oz water with 
2 tsp vanilla extract and 
1 tsp orange oil. Spray this on liberally. It gives me about 6 hours of protection.”

In a similar vein, a reader remarked: “My daughter made me an herbal insect repellant that I found very effective. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for me. Mix 3 ounces distilled water, 
1 ounce almond oil
, 10 drops peppermint oil
 and 10 drops of lavender oil. Shake before spraying it on skin.

“Unlike the commercially prepared herbal insect repellent I have tried, this does not give me a rash.”
Another reader has a different approach: “I take odorless garlic gel caps every day to help my circulation and mosquitoes stay away while biting everyone else! There is no odor with these gels, so it’s just another benefit of garlic that I didn’t plan on.”

Such remedies don’t work for everyone. One woman wrote,

“I started applying coconut milk, thinking it might help my skin from a lot of sun exposure during yard work. A ‘side effect’ I noticed was that the mosquitoes were not biting me. Neither did ticks, though they’d been a serious problem before. My neighbor says it doesn’t help her, though I’m not sure why.”

You’ll find more stories from readers about natural mosquito repellents at

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  1. SArah

    I have just bought my little house in Asheville North Carolina. I am terribly distraught and filled with anxiety because I am being attacked by mosquitoes when I go outside to water the tomatoes or to trim the garden flowers back. Just walking trash to the trashcan.

    I feel like I have bought this home and cannot enjoy it. I have type O blood I hear that mosquitoes love that. Meanwhile from the knees down my legs and ankles are completely covered in mosquito bites and I’m trying so hard not to itch them.

    I’d like to get rid of this anxiety and find something that really works. Without using date or any big chemical. It’s horrible. I know I sound dramatic but that’s how I feel today. I relocated here from Salt Lake City, and there’s quite a difference in the climate as everyone knows. Dry to tropical.

  2. Renee
    South Dakota

    Doesn’t tonic water have quinine in it? I read about it and found that people drank it to keep from getting malaria. Though the earlier tonic water had a larger amount of quinine. Maybe our present day tonic water can still work.

  3. JW

    For several years, I have successfully used Avon Skin-So-Soft bath oil (original scent) after I take a shower to repel mosquitoes. After I wash, I just rub it on my skin and let the shower water wash off any excess, then pat dry with a towel. There’s something about it that mosquitoes don’t like, yet my husband says it smells good. Be sure to use a non-slip mat in the shower.

  4. SFE

    I have over 50 years experience using B vitamins against biting bugs, including mosquitoes, red bugs, yellow flies, ticks, horse flies, and all others. I could tell when I forgot to take it, so could the bugs. I was raised in the country. Every insect you can imagine. Sometimes separate B’s, sometimes just a multi-vitamin/mineral, sometimes make sure there’s a lot of B in my diet. How strong didn’t seem to matter.
    Live in the suburbs now. Neighbors swatting and can’t understand why I’m not. I tell them. Most won’t because the doctor didn’t tell them. I love natural methods to repel bugs. Baking soda sprinkled around the yard every few years. Baking soda sprinkled around inside the house then a few days later vacuumed. No fleas and we have poodles that have not been properly groomed.

  5. donna

    Avon sells insect spray with Picaridin. A full line safe for the whole family without Deet. Find your local Avon distributor or go online, Avon will find one for you.

  6. DS

    Maybe if you had enough gin you’d be beyond caring whether the bugs bit you or not. :)

  7. Julie

    Do you think it would make a difference if one added some gin to that tonic? Would it produce the same results?

  8. WFC

    This spring my spouse has been getting numerous insect bites. (We don’t have many mosquitoes but we do have biting gnats.) I have not gotten a single one. It turns out that for about the past year I have been mixing my daily frozen orange juice with tonic water for the quinine because I tend to get leg cramps and the small amount of quinine in the tonic water is sufficient to suppress them. I now know the probable reason for my lack of insect bites.

  9. KB

    Yes, I have used schwepps tonic water…just take about 2 oz. (I take a shot glass full). I have also used other brands, it just depends on what is available.

  10. DS

    I love Schwepps tonic but haven’t had it in a long time. Would that work, or does it have to be a special type of tonic water with real quinine?

  11. KB

    I am very sensitive to mosquito bites, and moaquitoes LOVE me. If I get one bite, I have 10. A friend suggeated that I drink a shot glass of tonic water each day. While she was on her honeymoon in a tropical country, a local told her about this.
    I did it, and it completely works! When I lived in CO, I just took liquid B complex, but sincce being back on rhe East coast, only tonic water works for me.

  12. Christy

    Last summer on a motorcycle/camping ride across the US, I was almost eaten alive by mosquitoes at the state park outside Savannah, Illinois. The next day the waitress serving me breakfast at a cafe across the river in Iowa told me about Vanilla Bug Spray – that it worked better than anything. So I bought a bottle and she was right. It contains no DEET. The side benefit is you smell like a cupcake!

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