Eight ways to repel insects without bug spray (2023)

Eight ways to repel insects without bug spray (1)

This story was originally featured on Outdoor Life.

Unless you’re an entomologist (and on the clock), you probably hate being surrounded by bugs, especially if they bite. While these creatures play important roles in the environment, they can be a real nuisance to humans in the outdoors, and some of these bugs do transmit diseases. Your favorite store-bought bug repellent can keep them away for awhile, but what happens when the DEET can runs dry? Worse yet, what about when you’re in a survival situation and the bugs won’t leave you alone? Thankfully, there are some natural options to beat the bugs without all the chemicals.

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1. Make your own repellent

Eight ways to repel insects without bug spray (2)

While it’s not the strongest option in the world, you can make your own bug repellent from essential oils and other household products. Make a trip to a health food store or similar shop for the essential oils (or order them online). Then you’ll be ready to blend and bottle your own bug repellent. You’ll need:

  • A one-quart spray bottle
  • 1 pint distilled white vinegar
  • 1 pint water
  • 25 drops of tea tree oil
  • 25 drops of lavender essential oil

Add the ingredients into a clean spray bottle and shake well. Spray your boots, clothing and skin with a generous coating before heading outside. Reapply every two to four hours for best results.

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2. Check often for ticks

Ticks are more than a nuisance for our dogs. These troublesome arachnids are found in every habitat in the US, and we host more than 90 of the world’s 900 tick species. Many of these species pose a significant threat to outdoor enthusiasts, transmitting diseases such as Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Powassan disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), ehrlichiosis, STARI (Southern tick-associated rash illness), tularemia, and other diseases. Spot them by wearing light-colored clothing and doing frequent “tick checks” throughout the day. Remove embedded ticks quickly to limit your risk of contracting a tick-borne disease. Use tweezers or a tick removal tool to grab the tick by the mouth, pinching your own skin if necessary, then pull it straight out.

3. Watch where you put your gear

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Scorpions, spiders, centipedes, and other venomous creatures may consider your unattended boots, gloves, or other garments as a fine new home, especially if they have been undisturbed for a few hours. Then guess what happens when you suddenly pick these items up and put them on? The animal gets pressed against your skin and it bites or stings you. The venom can range from mild to intense, depending on the creature that you’ve disturbed and its size. Take scorpions as an example. With more than a thousand known scorpion species in the world, there are plenty we’ll encounter in our travels. Mercifully, there are only 25 known to carry venom that would kill a human. From that group, there’s just one that lives in the continental US. It’s the Arizona bark scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus) and its venom is on the low end of the spectrum (fatalities are very rare, usually occurring in small children and those with health problems). So how do we avoid the sting or bite? Don’t leave your clothing, gloves or footwear on the ground or outside overnight. Don’t hang your jacket on a tree. Don’t give them a chance to crawl into your open backpack. Gear that’s not being worn should be put away, closed up or otherwise moved out of the creature’s reach. Yes, it’s a pain, but it’s less painful than getting bitten or stung.

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4. Use wild plants as repellents

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Depending on your environment, there may be many wild plants which contain bug-repelling compounds. Some of these may be native species and others may have been brought to this continent for various purposes. Either way, it could be very helpful to learn about the plant species that can ward off pests in the outdoors. Before you start scrubbing wild plants all over yourself, use a wild plant field guide to make 100 percent positive identification of any plant or plant part.

  • Paw Paw (Asimina triloba): This native tree species is commonly found along rivers and waterways throughout the eastern US. It bears large tropical-looking fruits (edible to people) that ripen in late summer. The trees also bear large ovate leaves which can be crushed and wiped on your skin as a useful insect repellent. The leaves are at their best in the spring and early summer, when their strong scent can remind us of fresh asphalt.
  • Catnip (Nepeta cataria): This common mint family member is a non-native species, brought to these shores for more than just driving your cat insane. A tea from the leaves can have a calming effect in humans and the plant can repel mosquitoes and other flying insects. The easiest way to use the plant is to crush the fresh leaves and stems onto your skin and clothing.
  • Pineapple weed (Matricaria matricarioides): Another non-native species, this unusual little wildflower doesn’t look like a pineapple but the leaves smell like it. Often found on roadsides and other disturbed ground, the feathery leaves and tender stems can be crushed and applied to skin and clothing to repel insects, especially mosquitoes.

5. Don’t forget the net

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They don’t have to be expensive and they won’t be pretty. They might just save your sanity though, and block the transmission of disease. Mesh bug suits and netted headwear can block the bugs when they come on strong. This is much more effective than wearing multiple layers of clothing, as some people do, or by applying buckets of bug repellent. Make sure your exposed skin is covered and eliminate all gaps in your mesh suit and headwear. The only thing worse than having multiple bugs flying around inside your head net is not having a head net in the first place. Consider a sleeping net too, as these save lives in parts of the world. Mosquitos are more than just bothersome—they can transmit the malaria parasite (plasmodium, which kills over 1 million people per year globally), and many different viruses that cause encephalitis and dangerous fevers (like chikungunya, dengue, yellow fever, St. Louis encephalitis, West Nile virus, and Zika).

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6. Smoke the bugs away

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Some savvy fishermen know how to beat biting flies and other pests around the water. They smoke cheap (or very good) cigars when the air gets buggy. For non-smokers (and those who’ve run out of cigars), there are plenty of other options—ones that won’t get you hooked on nicotine. It turns out that any smoke can act like a natural bug repellent, though some are much better than others. Remember grandma’s cedar chest full of blankets? Cedar has long been known as a natural bug repellent and cedar bark is famous for smoldering (rather than bursting into flame). So a bundle of smoldering cedar bark can help to keep the bugs at bay, and it’s also a fine way to transport a fire in the form of embers (for example, if you were leaving one camp and moving to another).

Another option for smoke uses a plant that normally grows by the water, like cattails. The dead brown seed heads can be found atop the tall grass-like plants. Grab one of these “burnt corndogs” and apply an open flame to one end of it. Once smoldering, smoke will begin to drift out of it. Place the seed head upwind from you with the glowing end into the wind, and sit where the smoke can bathe you. Similarly, a fireproof container of crumbly rotten wood (aka punk wood) can also be lit to provide smoke. This is especially useful for “smudging” primitive survival shelters. Place the container of burning punk wood on the bare dirt floor of your shelter and allow the smoke to fill the structure. This will drive out insects, spiders and other unwelcomed guests. Repeat every few days in warmer weather, weekly or as needed in cooler weather.

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7. Cover yourself with mud

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You’re really serious if you go to this extreme, but certain bug-infested environments may require this drastic solution. When smoke and wild plant scents aren’t strong enough to keep the bugs off your tender skin, you can create a physical barrier by coating your skin (and any thin clothing) with a layer of mud. Not only is this an effective camouflage against humans (remember the movie Rambo?), the mud suit is also effective when hiding from bugs. With the mud fresh and wet (and after it dries into a crusty shell), you’ll be wearing a surprisingly effective barrier that most bugs will not try to penetrate. It’s also useful for hiding your scent, which could come in handy while hunting.

8. Avoid chigger habitats

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Sometimes, avoidance is the best way to win a fight. Chiggers (red bugs and harvest mites) are tiny biting arachnids that are found globally. Here in the US, there are only two species that impact us as outdoor enthusiasts. Eutrombicula alfreddugèsi is the main culprit, and the recently hatched larvae are the troublemakers. Too small to see with the naked eye, these hatchlings are hungry for any blood they can find (human or animal). Though they don’t transmit diseases, the intense itching of their bites can last for weeks. This has led to the popular (and incorrect) belief that these creatures burrow under your skin. In actuality, the larvae inject an enzyme into your skin, dissolving some skin cells (for them to drink) and hardening other skin cells (to make a “drinking straw” known as a stylostome). It’s this transformed tissue that causes such a severe itch, not a bug under your skin.


The best defense is to avoid likely breeding grounds where the larvae would be plentiful. Since they dry out easily, damp grassy areas, swampy spots, low lying and riverine environments are hot spots. Avoid these in late spring and early summer. If you do suspect you’ve wandered through their domain (due to a sensation of tiny prickly bites under your clothes), change your clothing immediately. They can crawl around in your clothes for hours, biting you in many different places. If you only had one set of clothes (say, in a survival setting), take the clothing off and hang them to dry for 30 minutes by a hot fire (socks and underwear too). This dry heat will kill the larvae.


What is the strongest natural insect repellent? ›

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus has been found to be the most effective natural mosquito repellent. ...
  • Note: Oil of lemon eucalyptus and lemon eucalyptus oil are not the same thing.

What smell do bugs hate the most? ›

Those most closely associated with repellency are citronella oil, eucalyptus oil, and catnip oil, but others include clove oil, patchouli, peppermint, and geranium.

What is a homemade repellent for insects? ›

Make an All-Purpose Insect Repellent

lemongrass or citronella oil, and 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar. 1 cup isopropyl alcohol, 1 cup water, ½ tsp. catnip oil. 1 cup alcohol or witch hazel and 10-20 drops of essential oils such as lemongrass, peppermint, or lemon eucalyptus.

What is a substitute for bug spray? ›

Alternatives to Bug Spray
  • Lemon eucalyptus oil comes from the tree with the same name. ...
  • Lavender produces a distinct smell that works on keeping bugs at bay. ...
  • Cinnamon oil has been known to destroy unborn mosquitos. ...
  • Citronella is a well-known alternative to bug spray made from a variety of herbs.
Aug 29, 2022

What is an alternative to bug spray? ›

Add mosquito repellant plants to your landscaping – citronella grass, African or French marigolds, basil, lemon thyme, catnip, sage, pennyroyal, rosemary, geranium and lavender. Research wrist bands – some contain mosquito repelling oils such as citronella.

What smell do mosquitoes hate? ›

Certain Natural Scents

Mosquitoes are turned off by several natural scents: cinnamon, peppermint, cedar, citronella, lemongrass, patchouli, catnip, lavender, and more. Find a favorite, and use it when you want to spend time outside.

Do bug bracelets work? ›


These wearable repellent devices are marketed as being safer because you don't have to rub anything on your skin. But scientists who have tested these products have found them to be ineffective.

Does vinegar work as a bug repellent? ›

A combination of half apple cider vinegar (although normal vinegar works just as well) and half water in a spray bottle works perfectly to repel those pests. This concoction can be sprayed around the perimeter of your home, on the legs of tables that have food served on them or even around a screen house or tent.

Do dryer sheets repel bugs? ›

Dryer sheets are designed to provide a pleasant scent to laundry, not to repel insects, so any insect-repellent properties may wear off quickly. In summary, while some people claim that dryer sheets can repel mosquitoes, there is little scientific evidence to support this claim.

What liquids do bugs hate? ›

Clove, peppermint, thyme, rosemary, and citronella oil are just a few essential oils that can help keep bugs away.

What color do bugs hate? ›

Bugs are naturally attracted to bright colors like white, yellow or orange. Colors like green and blue won't register as vividly when seen in the UV spectrum, deterring bugs away from these colored objects.

What are the 4 active ingredients of insect repellent? ›

The active ingredients in most insect repellents are DEET, Picardin, or IR 3535, for exposed skin and permethrin, for clothing only.

What are natural repellents? ›

What are they? Botanical repellents, which often have “natural” on the label, can include any number of plant-based chemicals. Some common ones are lemongrass, citronella, peppermint, geraniol, soybean, and rosemary.

What color do mosquitoes hate? ›

Certain colors repel mosquitoes. If you don't want to become a mosquito's next meal, try wearing lighter, more subdued hues. White, beige, khaki, pastel yellow, and even soft gray are good options. And as a bonus, these colors will also keep you cooler on a warm day.

What do mosquitoes absolutely hate? ›

Mosquitoes hate the smell of lavender, citronella, clove, peppermint, basil, cedarwood, eucalyptus, peppermint, lemongrass and rosemary. They also hate smells such as smoke, for further insight, see our exploration on, does smoke keep mosquitoes away?

How can I be less attractive to mosquitoes? ›

Basically, to avoid being a mosquito-target you should stay as scent-free as possible, wear light clothes, avoid bogs and use an effective repellent (such as those containing DEET or icaridin).

How do you tell if a bite is from a mosquito? ›

Mosquito bite signs include:
  1. A puffy and reddish bump appearing a few minutes after the bite.
  2. A hard, itchy, reddish-brown bump, or multiple bumps appearing a day or so after the bite or bites.
  3. Small blisters instead of hard bumps.
  4. Dark spots that look like bruises.
Mar 6, 2020

Do mosquito rings work? ›

There's enough evidence to show that when used outdoors, burning a mosquito coil will assist in reducing mosquito bites, but should be used judiciously. Using them in combination with topical insect repellents probably provides the best protection.

Do bug bite stickers work? ›

Wristbands. Wristbands are marketed as safe mosquito repellents because you don't have to rub or spray anything on your skin. However, a test by Consumer Reports found mosquito repellent wristbands are ineffective.

Do cockroaches like vinegar? ›

All About Vinegar

It can, however, help deter roaches and get rid of germs in the kitchen when used as a cleaning agent. A clean house, especially a clean kitchen, is one of the best lines of defense against cockroaches.

Do spiders like vinegar? ›

Vinegar is used in many homemade cleaners, however not many people know, that vinegar is an excellent bugs and spiders repellent.

Do bugs hate white vinegar? ›

In addition to being a great cleaning agent, vinegar is effective in deterring many types of pests. Ants despise the smell of vinegar, and vinegar will wipe out the scent trails they leave around the house to navigate.

Does Vicks Vapor Rub repel bugs? ›

Externally, some hikers use Mentholatum or Vicks Vapo-Rub, both of which contain scents that repel bugs, menthol and camphor, respectively.

What bugs does cinnamon repel? ›

"You can use cinnamon on any indoor or outdoor space as protection against pest infestations." Cinnamon doesn't only scare away ants, but also cockroaches, spiders, fruit flies, rats, wasps, earwigs, silverfish, mosquitoes, and even bed bugs, according to Barrett.

How can I attract less bugs? ›

How To Keep Bugs Away The Natural Way - TOP 21 Methods
  1. LEDs don't attract bugs. ...
  2. Place a chopped onion in water to naturally repel mosquitos. ...
  3. Dryer sheets repel insects. ...
  4. Mint mouthwash spray will keep bugs at bay. ...
  5. Dish soap will attract & kill bugs. ...
  6. Apple cider vinegar will keep bugs away naturally.
Jun 2, 2017

What insects hate the most? ›

Insects hate peppermint. In fact, the stick bug uses a milky substance it can emit from behind its head that fills the air with the scent of peppermint. The bug uses this to fight off predators, as the scent is an unbearable irritant to most insects.

Do bugs like Windex? ›

Because Windex doesn't work as a repellent, it's no more effective at getting rid of the occasional bug than using a broom to shoo the critter outdoors or a paper towel to squish it. You're better off saving the cleaning solution for its rightful use.

Do bugs like clean or dirty? ›

While it's true that some pests are drawn to less-than-sanitary conditions, many others will make themselves at home in even the tidiest of places. Therefore, you shouldn't take an infestation as a sign that your housekeeping skills need honing.

What sounds repel bugs? ›

Ultrasonic sound waves have a frequency higher than what human ears can hear, but invading species can detect them. The sound is meant to irritate pesky critters and prevent them from making homes near the source of the noise.

What color attracts spiders? ›

They can see green and ultraviolet light. Green is their favorite color because they're most sensitive to light in the green wavelength. As a result, wearing green or having lots of green items around your home will attract more spiders.

What is the safest insect repellent? ›

DEET is approved as a safe and effective insect repellent. The concentration of DEET in a product indicates how long the product will be effective—a higher concentration works for a longer time. For example, 10% DEET provides protection for about 2 hours, and 30% DEET protects for about 5 hours.

Which one is the most widely used repellent? ›

DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide, also known as N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide) is the most effective and most widely used insect repellent. It was first used by the US military in 1946 and has been sold commercially for almost half a century.

How toxic is bug repellent? ›

Most household bug sprays contain plant-derived chemicals called pyrethrins. These chemicals were originally isolated from chrysanthemum flowers and are generally not harmful. However, they can cause life-threatening breathing problems if they are breathed in.

What is the most effective natural pesticide? ›

Neem Oil. This is one of the best all-purpose natural insecticides, killing everything from cabbage worms and squash bugs above ground to nematodes and grubs beneath the soil. Neem oil is a poisonous extract of the neem tree, a tropical Asian species, which is widely available in garden centers.

What is the best homemade bug spray? ›

One of the easiest homemade bug sprays, simply mix one cup of white vinegar with three cups of water. You can also add half a teaspoon of dishwashing soap to help the solution adhere. Shake thoroughly and apply to the affected areas.

What is the best insect repellent for humans? ›

After multiple weeks of testing, we found three bug sprays that stood above the rest:
  • Proven Insect Repellent Spray. Best bug spray overall and best DEET-free bug spray. Proven. ...
  • Coleman SkinSmart DEET-Free Insect Repellent Spray. A great DEET-free alternative. Coleman. ...
  • Cutter Backwoods Insect Repellent. Best DEET bug spray.
Jan 11, 2023

What scents will keep bugs away? ›

Clove, peppermint, thyme, rosemary, and citronella oil are just a few essential oils that can help keep bugs away.


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