People are understandably concerned about biting insects, especially mosquitoes. Headlines about the Zika virus and birth defects have a lot of people worried about going outside. That is why insect repellents are flying off pharmacy shelves. The fine folks at Consumer Reports recommend products containing DEET (Off! Deepwoods VIII and Ben’s 30% DEET Tick & Insect Wilderness Formula. They keep the flying insects away for 7.5 to 8 hours. The highest rated CR products against the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits the Zika virus contain 20% picaridin. They are Sawyer Picaridin and Natrapel 8 Hour.
Are There “Natural” Insect Repellents that Work?
Another highly rated CR product contains 30% lemon eucalyptus (Repel Lemon Eucalyptus) and it worked for about 7 hours. It may not be quite as effective as DEET or picaridin, but it performed well enough to be highly rated.
Some of our readers would like other natural approaches to mosquito repellents, like this questioner:
Q. I read about using catnip to repel mosquitoes. How exactly do you use it? Rub it directly on the skin? Make a lotion or oil? Drink it in a tea?
A. Catnip (AKA Catmint, Field Balm, Menthe des Chats, etc) is known scientifically as Nepeta cataria. It has been used as a tea to treat insomnia, headaches, digestive upset and hives.
We would be cautious about drinking it to prevent mosquito bites, however. You might end up overdosing and that could lead to a headache, lethargy, nausea or vomiting.
People have used catnip topically for arthritis or even hemorrhoids, but there is little, if any evidence that the herb might work for such purposes.
There is some evidence that catnip oil has the ability to repel mosquitoes, house flies, mites, cockroaches and ticks (Phytochemistry, Jan. 2011; Journal of Medical Entomology, July 2006; Journal of Economic Entomology, April, 2002; Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association, Dec. 2012).
How you would make a DIY mosquito repellent with catnip is not perfectly clear. There is no organization like Consumer Reports that could test your do-it-yourself remedy, which is why we like their recommendations best.
Homemade Recipe with Catnip:
If you want to give this a go, we would suggest purchasing oil of lemon eucalyptus, catnip oil, witch hazel and coconut oil. Here are some suppliers, though we cannot vouch for any of them. Here is a link to Lemon Eucalyptus from Edens Garden and Catnip Oil from Plant Therapy on Amazon.
We would mix equal amounts of oil of lemon eucalyptus and catnip oil (roughly 20 drops or one milliliter of each) together with 8 ounces of witch hazel and 8 ounces of coconut oil. Once the ingredients are thoroughly mixed you can transfer the mixture to a convenient glass spray bottle. We really like these glass bottles from Amazon for spraying on small amounts of liquid. Shake before spraying. Keep out of eyes or sensitive areas.
Always test a small area of skin on the forearm first to see if you are sensitive or allergic to any of the ingredients. Perform the test a day or two before applying to other skin to make sure you are less likely to experience a negative reaction.
We make no promises about such do-it-yourself insect repellents. Reader response to catnip has been mixed. Here are just a few comments from our website:
Jann offered this:
“I tried this a couple of summers ago. Grew my own catnip (in hanging pots to keep it out of reach of several neighborhood cats) – made sure it was the real-thing catnip. Found a recipe for the catnip mosquito spray on the Internet. Don’t have the recipe any more, but the person who posted it said it worked, and the solution seemed pretty strong to me.
“It didn’t work to deter mosquitoes at all as far as I could tell. It did work to attract the neighborhood cats to me. One day I had a tiny piece of the freshly picked catnip in my pocket as I walking in the yard – a neighborhood cat that usually ignores me followed everywhere I went, meowing the whole way.”
“I have grown catnip in my garden and I must say it is really effective against mosquitoes, house flies and aphids.
“The only problem with catnip is that it has some behavioral side effects on pet cats. When my pet cat (Meeow) goes near it, she starts rolling on the ground and becomes aggressive. Can anyone tell me how to deal with this?”
Cindy shared this story about vitamin B and garlic:
“Well, nothing ever bites me because of the supplements I take, including high-B complex and garlic. So far this year I haven’t used repellant even once. I have kept windows open, have spent lots of time outside at night — and exactly one bite so far. (I admit, it’s much worse in the mountains… those blackflies would bite chunks of flesh off an elephant!)
“My cats love me, but they would love me SO much more if I were covered in catnip oil! Also, I wonder what would happen if one were in the woods and a bobcat or cougar came along. Would catnip oil disarm their bad intentions? By the way, I think you can buy this oil at pet supply stores.”
For now, we would have to say that applying catnip oil to the skin has received mixed reviews at best. Some say it is totally worthless against mosquitoes. Others suggest that it is about as good as DEET. We have serious doubts about that, especially now that people are worried about West Nile Virus and Zika.
The easiest solution to the mosquito repellent search is to go with one of the Consumer Reports recommendations. If we could only pick two products, we would go with Sawyer Picaridin and Repel Lemon Eucalyptus.
We would love to get your report. Let us know if the catnip approach is worth a try or is a total bust.
Revised June 30, 2016