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Natural Mosquito Repellants

Mosquitoes are more than a nuisance, they can carry disease. Many people are wary of DEET, but what are the effective natural mosquito repellants?
Natural Mosquito Repellants
Bug insect itch west nile

Q. Is there any herb I can take to make myself less attractive to mosquitoes without also making myself less attractive to the human race? I wear no perfumed lotions but seem to attract mosquitoes like a magnet.

A. We don’t know why some people are especially attractive to mosquitoes, although it seems to be related to body chemistry. Foot odor has been proposed as one possible explanation, and using an antiperspirant on the soles of the feet might help.

Mosquitoes have been biting humans for thousands of years, and for almost that long people have been trying to ward them off.

Native Americans are said to have used rancid bear grease. At Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau tried a concoction of camphor, turpentine and oil of spearmint. (He eventually decided the smell was worse than the itch.) Marines have extolled the virtues of Avon Skin-So-Soft bath oil.

The trouble is, most of these folk remedies have not been proven effective. One indisputably effective repellent was originally developed for the military.

Pros & Cons of DEET:

DEET is unrivaled in its ability to keep mosquitoes from biting. But there are concerns about toxicity, especially for young children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against using insect repellents with more than 10 percent DEET on little children. There have been a few reports of headaches, behavioral changes, disorientation and seizures.

What About Thiamine?

Another approach to repelling mosquitoes is to take 100 mg of vitamin B-1 (thiamine). The original research on this was done in the 1940s and doesn’t meet today’s standards. But we recently heard from a reader who found it very effective:

“Twenty years ago, my husband and I went backpacking in the High Sierras with three friends. It was an extremely wet year with a lot of snow melting.

“On the east side, we had many good places to camp. But on the west side, there wasn’t a dry spot to be found. Where there wasn’t snow, there were soggy marshes, ponds, and swollen streams. It was mosquito heaven!

“Anticipating such conditions, my husband and I began taking a daily vitamin B-1 supplement two weeks before the trip. No one else in our group believed in this advice, and they all stuck with conventional insect repellent.

“Never in my life (and I grew up in New Jersey) had I seen so many mosquitoes. They hovered in thick black blankets over every square inch of our bodies. They tried to enter every available orifice, making it unpleasant to eat, drink water, or go to the bathroom. It was so horrible that after two days on that side of the mountain, we gave up and retreated to the east side.

“My husband and I had only seven mosquito bites between us after those two nightmarish days. Our three friends, however, were literally covered with bites. One woman had more than 50 bites on a small section of her shoulder. There was a solid row of bites along the part of her hair. Each of the three was similarly blanketed with bites. The evidence I’ve provided is purely anecdotal, not scientific, but it was enough to prove to me the value of vitamin B-1 for keeping mosquitoes from thinking you’re a good target.”

The theory is that oral doses of vitamin B-1 create a smell at the level of the skin that mosquitoes don’t like. But some people report that what once worked well is less effective against some species of mosquito. Personal body chemistry may also have something to do with effectiveness.

Garlic capsules also have their enthusiasts, but the odor might discourage people as much as mosquitoes.

Better Options Now:

Companies have now come up with newer repellents that work as well as DEET, but are derived from natural products or synthesized to mimic natural compounds. Both picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus have proven helpful. According to Consumer Reports, side effects are less worrisome than those associated with DEET. Picaridin is a more appropriate choice for children. Be sure to keep all insect repellents out of the eyes, and use them only on clothing or exposed skin, never on skin under clothing.


Home-made insect repellent can be put together using 1 tablespoon citronella oil, 2 cups white vinegar, 1 cup water and 1 cup Avon Skin-So-Soft bath oil.

A product called Bite Blocker contains soybean, coconut and geranium oils. In a Canadian study, Bite Blocker repelled mosquitoes better than citronella and a brand with a low concentration of the effective chemical repellent DEET.

No insect repellent, even DEET, is one hundred percent effective. To relieve itching, a prescription-strength steroid cream may work, but applying hot water (uncomfortable, but not scalding) for a few seconds relieves itching for an hour or more.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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